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Issue #1665      November 19, 2014

Death pressure mounts

Public rallies held around Australia have put mounting pressure on Western Australian Premier Colin Barnett to make urgent prison and policing reforms, following the death of a young Yamatji woman in police custody on August 4.

Protesters gather at WA Parliament in response to the death of Dhu while in police custody.

Della Roe has invited Barnett to meet with her, family representatives and Elders in Port Hedland, where her 22-year-old daughter Dhu died in custody, after repeatedly asking for medical assistance.

News of a second Aboriginal death at a maximum-security prison in Casuarina has added to the campaign, amid questions being raised whether Dhu’s arrest over $1,000 in unpaid fines may have resulted from a domestic violence call-out.

Deaths in Custody Watch Committee WA (DICWC) chair Marc Newhouse said he is encouraged by Barnett’s public commitment made to the 300 people at the Perth rally.

“The full truth will come out. I will make sure of that,” Barnett said after being mobbed by protestors. He also made a personal commitment to reduce the number of Aboriginal people incarcerated in the state, but was adamant that an independent inquiry would not be necessary.

Dhu died three days after being locked up in the South Hedland watch-house. Police said at the time that after complaining of feeling ill, she was taken to Hedland Health Campus three times, where twice she was reportedly declared fit and returned to custody. She died on the final visit.

Racism, sexism

Newhouse said Dhu’s death was linked with racism and sexism.

“Clearly part of what’s happened here is along the lines of criminalisation of Aboriginal women,” he said. “For example, we know that there has been an 18 percent increase in the number of women locked up in WA.”

Newhouse said Aboriginal women are not taken seriously when it comes to being victims of crime. He questioned whether Dhu’s alleged broken ribs were possibly from a previous injury and if police went to her address as part of a call-out.

“There’s a clear police manual directive that if someone has a medical problem or injury they are not to be detained,” he said. “If she already had an injury then why on earth was she taken to the lock-up?”

The recent prison death of a 31-year-old Aboriginal man who is believed to have taken his own life, highlights further concerns with the WA jail system, including ligature points still being accessible in cells.

“The other concern is we know that the Aboriginal visitors scheme is in disarray,” Newhouse said. “The question is was this person able to access the Aboriginal visitors’ scheme ... was he being monitored or under observation?”

Urgent action

Newhouse called for urgent action, particularly around the issue of people being locked up for unpaid fines. “That’s something that can be changed with stroke of the pen,” he said. “That’s something that can happen now – we don’t need to wait for a coronial inquest.”

The Aboriginal Legal Service of WA (ALSWA) is pushing for a mandatory Custody Notification Service (CNS) to be implemented in WA, saying it will save lives.

The 24-hour phone service notifying ALS officers when an Aboriginal person is taken into custody operates only in NSW/ACT.

“One life lost in custody is one too many and we implore Senator Nigel Scullion, Minister for Indigenous Affairs, to provide this vital service nationally,” ALSWA chief executive Dennis Eggington said.

When asked by the Koori Mail about introducing such a system, WA Police said the Criminal Investigation Act already provides a legal basis for people in custody to have access to welfare and legal representation.

“Across the state, WA police are in contact with ALS officers on a regular basis for any Aboriginal person in custody,” a spokesperson said.

“The issue of expanding the services of the ALS is a matter for government to consider.”

Dhu’s grandmother, Carol Roe, is asking for answers and wants an independent inquiry.

Koori Mail

Next article – Principals survey finds lack of resourcing their biggest concern

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