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Issue #1721      March 2, 2016

A death too many

Time for a renewed national Stop Deaths in Custody campaign

On Saturday August 2, 2014 Julieka Dhu, a young Yamatji woman from Geraldton WA, was arrested for unpaid parking fines and locked up in the South Hedland watchhouse. This was not unusual – in Western Australia it has become a habit to lock up those too poor to pay their fines.

Women and Indigenous people are hit hardest by this and Indigenous women – doubly so. The number of Indigenous women jailed for fine default in Western Australia soared from 33 in 2008 to 223 in 2013. One in six Indigenous people in jail in WA are there because they could not pay fines.

Within three days Julieka Dhu was dead, a death that would never happen in a decent society.

What has happened since shows how a deeply ingrained racist culture in many institutions, combined with increasingly anti-people policies by successive governments has been lethal for peoples of the First Nations.

Julieka was the 339th Indigenous person to die in custody in Australia since the Royal Commission Into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody delivered its report and recommendations in 1991. Central to its recommendations were measures to stop Aboriginal people ending up in custody in the first place and to establish custody notification services for those cases where they did.

These recommendations have largely gone unimplemented.

Calls by the WA Aboriginal Legal Service for funding to host a 24-hour hotline have so far fallen on deaf ears. A promise by WA Premier Barnett to establish one is yet to be acted on.

Since 1991, Indigenous deaths in custody have increased by more than 150 percent, from about 10 to about 15 a year and Aboriginal people are being jailed more than ever before.

The Indigenous prison population has grown from 2,140 in 1991 to 9,300 in 2015, with Aboriginal women being the fastest growing number of prisoners.

Much of this growth must be attributed to law and order policies of federal and state governments, which predominantly entrap Indigenous people, economic-social policies that have massively cut into Indigenous programs, as well as other programs affecting the less well off, and specific, racist policies such as the Northern Territory Intervention and closure of remote Indigenous settlements, that disempower Indigenous communities and bring them under a pervasive control regime.

This is movement in the opposite direction from that the 1991 Commission recommended. It called for a transfer of resources into Aboriginal communities to develop community self-management.

Julieka’s traumatised family have been campaigning for justice and to find out the truth surrounding her death. It took 16 months for a coronial inquiry to commence and this was suspended for a further three months after the first week. It looks like the police needed that time to prepare their case in response to the damning evidence of their inhumane and brutal treatment of a young woman they picked up as she was about to receive medical attention for infected injuries.

The police did take Julieka to the Port Hedland hospital three times, in response to her constant cries of pain and pleading for help, but told the staff she was “faking” her injuries. The staff obliged by recording her problem as “behavioural issues” and did not bother to take blood tests, x-rays or even her temperature.

The third time the police dragged Julieka to the hospital it appears she was already dead, possibly at police hands, according to other witnesses in the lock up.

That Julieka’s family has even made it as far as a coronial inquiry in this time is exceptional in Western Australia. The normal course of action in this process, which is based on police investigating police, is that the inquiry starts only once police complete their investigation and they routinely draw this out until the “heat” goes out of the issue.

Only her family’s relentless campaigning has kept Julieka’s case alive and kept pressure on the WA government. Her uncle Shaun Harris has endlessly crossed the country and spoken at rallies organised to keep Julieka’s case in the spotlight.

“We had to rely massively on social media, because the mainstream media yet again fails us black people of Australia on the really important black issues”, he says, adding, “These aren’t just black issues, but Australian issues as well ... We can’t keep being pushed aside or shoved under the carpet. They have to stop being in denial about how they’re treating us, how they’re murdering us.”

A National Day of Solidarity is being planned for March 14, 2016, the day the coronial inquest re-commences.

Harris sees this as one more step in gaining truth and justice, not only for his niece Julieka, but for the many others who have died in custody. It is a step in the struggle to prevent all deaths in custody in future.

April 15 marks 25 years since the release of the Royal Commission’s findings and recommendations. It is a good time to renew the campaign to stop Aboriginal deaths in custody, by fighting institutional and systemic racism, not only in Western Australia but Australia wide.

Next article – Congress looking down the barrel

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