The Guardian October 4, 2000


Pat anniversary raises serious questions

Seventeen years ago a 16-year-old Aboriginal boy was beaten by police 
and left to die in a cell in Roebourn, Western Australia.

The outcry over John Pat's death eventually led to the five-year Royal 
Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (RCIADIC). The Commission has 
produced 339 recommendations covering every aspect of Aboriginal and Torres 
Strait Islander disadvantage.

Have things changed? Yes, they have. Unfortunately, for the worse as far as 
deaths in custody figures and incarceration rates go.

The rate of indigenous peoples' imprisonment and deaths in custody is on 
the rise.

Over the 10 years before the Royal Commission, there were 99 indigenous 
deaths in custody.

Over the eight and a half years between the tabling of the Royal 
Commission's final report in May 1991 and December 1999 there were 131 
indigenous deaths in custody, according to the latest data from the 
Australian Institute of Criminology.

In 1999, there were 19 indigenous deaths in custody  the third highest 
number on record. Indigenous people represented 19 per cent of the total 
prison population and 22 per cent of all prison deaths.

In the decade before the Royal Commission, 12.1 per cent of all prison 
deaths were of indigenous people.

"Much of the failure is due to the fact that governments refuse to act on 
recommendations from RCIADIC and from the Australian Law Reform 
Commission's 1986 report on the need to recognise Indigenous Customary 
law", stated ATSIC Chairman Geoff Clark.

"When the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) meets next month it must 
answer questions on the continued lack of transparency and accountability 
on Indigenous deaths in custody.

"COAG must also accept that it is overdue in recognising Indigenous 
customary law as part of the process of turning around the shameful neglect 
and discrimination that are stuffing the prisons of this country full of 
Indigenous people", concluded Mr Clark.

Speaking in Western Australia, ATSIC Commissioner Terry Whitby pointed out 
that mandatory sentencing in WA both removes judicial discretion and 
ensures that a high number of Indigenous people who appear before the court 
go to jail.

"WA's policies are prominent reasons for repeated United Nations criticism 
of Australia's treatment of Indigenous people and especially the impact of 
those policies on our young", said Mr Whitby.

"John Pat might have been less than an angel in life, but the authorities 
had no right to martyr him. I hope his family takes some comfort in the 
knowledge that John Pat's name stands as a rallying point in our struggle 
to seek justice for our communities", said Mr Whitby.

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