Australian Institute of Criminology

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20 Years of Monitoring Deaths in Custody

Media Release

15 April 2011

On the 20th Anniversary of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (RCIADIC) the Australian Institute of Criminology continues its 20 year program monitoring and reporting all deaths in custody, AIC research manager Laura Beacroft said today.

The Royal Commission recommended a deaths in custody monitoring program to examine deaths occurring in prison, police and juvenile justice custody, and in 1992 the AIC released the first Deaths in Custody monitoring report.

Annual data has been published regularly since. The most recent report was released in December 2010, covering data to 2008. The AIC receives deaths in custody data from all Australian police and corrections agencies and uses available coronial findings where possible.

"The main conclusion from the Royal Commission was that Indigenous people are not more likely to die in custody than non-Indigenous people, and this remains true today," Ms Beacroft said.

"The problem remains that Indigenous people are significantly over-represented in all forms of custody compared with non-Indigenous Australians. Indigenous people comprise less than 2.5 percent of the total Australian population yet account for over a quarter (28%) of young people in juvenile detention, one-third (33%) of people involved in police custody incidents and more than one-quarter (26%) of the total prison population.

"Efforts to reduce Indigenous deaths in custody must include a focus on reducing their contact with the criminal justice system," Ms Beacroft said.

While any death is of concern, there are some positive trends - both the Indigenous and non-Indigenous rates of deaths in custody have decreased over the last decade. For example, in 2008 rates of death in prison for both cohorts are some of the lowest ever recorded. In 2008, there were 1.3 deaths per 1,000 Indigenous prisoners and 2.2 per 1,000 non-Indigenous prisoners.

Also the nature of deaths in both prison and police custody have changed dramatically since 1991. The most common prison custody death was then due to self-inflicted injuries, primarily hanging. Since the late 1990’s, hanging deaths in prison have been in decline and  in recent years represent one of the least common causes of death in prison, particularly amongst Indigenous prisoners. The nature of deaths in police custody has also changed over the past 20 years. The most frequent police custody death throughout the 1990’s occurred in an institutional setting such as a police cell, or during raids. Since 2000, deaths in motor vehicle pursuits and sieges have become the most frequent type of police custody death.

"The Australian Institute of Criminology will continue to monitor deaths in all forms of custody, and will assist custodial authorities in developing strategies to reduce the incidents of deaths in custody," Ms Beacroft said.