Australian Institute of Criminology

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Police custody deaths down but prison custody deaths up

Media Release

23 March 1998

Two new reports from the Australian Institute of Criminology focus on the increasing number of Australian deaths in custody.

Australian Deaths in Custody and Custody-Related Police Operations, 1997 and Prison Deaths 1980-1997: National Overview and State Trends provide, for the first time, 18 years of data on deaths in custody.

The reports, written by Research Analyst Vicki Dalton, highlight some disturbing facts. For example, a disproportionately high number of Indigenous deaths in custody are caused by poor health. In addition, although only 15 per cent of Australia's prison population were remandees awaiting sentence in 1997, they comprised 37 per cent of prison deaths (65 per cent of which were suicides).

The number of institutional deaths in police custody has steadily declined since 1987, with an 85 per cent reduction (from 41 to 6) in the past ten years.

719 people died in prisons from 1980 to 1997. In 1997, 75 people died in prison custody. This is a 44 per cent increase over 1996 and the highest number recorded since 1980 when the figure was 30.

"Analysis in future years will test whether or not this was an aberration, or cause for still more serious concern", the Director, Adam Graycar, said on the release of the papers.

There has also been an upward trend in the number of deaths occurring during the process of police detaining or attempting to detain individuals, for example police pursuits, sieges, shootings. In 1997, more than 20 per cent of deaths in custody occurred in this manner.

During 1997 the number and proportion of Aboriginal deaths in prison custody fell by 33 per cent, while the number and proportion of non-Aboriginal deaths rose by 68 per cent.

Almost 80 per cent of the 103 deaths in custody during 1997 occurred in institutional settings. 93% of these occurred in prison while the remainder occurred in police custody.

Of the deaths which occurred in prison, 41 per cent were caused by hanging and 36 per cent by illness, such as heart attack or heart disease.

22 deaths took place while police were in the process of detaining or attempting to detain individuals (one death which occurred while the individual was attempting to escape). Half of these 22 deaths were the result of a gunshot wound either self-inflicted or inflicted by the police.

In 57 per cent of cases, the offences which brought the deceased individuals into custody were homicide, assault, sex offences and robbery. The mean age of those dying in police custody was 26 for Aboriginal people and 33 for non-Aboriginal people; and in prison custody, 34 for Aboriginal people and 37 for non-Aboriginal people.