Australian Institute of Criminology

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Executive summary

Overview of the Deaths in Custody Monitoring Program

In this report, information is presented on deaths in prison custody, as well as deaths in police custody and custody-related operations across Australian states and territories for the 2011–12 and 2012–13 financial years. The data presented in this report include frequencies of deaths in custody and information regarding the deceased, including demographic information and cause of death. This report also presents trend analysis from 1979–80 onwards for prison custody and from 1989–90 onwards for police custody and police custody-related operations. Rates are presented for prison custody deaths. They are not available for police custody and custody-related operations due to a lack of reliable data on the total number of people placed into police custody and/or involved in custody-related operations each year.

Overview of findings for 2011–12 and 2012–13

In 2011–12 and 2012–13, there were 144 deaths in custody, 73 in 2011–12 (42 prison custody; 31 police custody and custody-related operations) and 71 in 2012–13 (53 prison custody; 18 police custody and custody-related operations). Aggregate data on deaths in each form of custody are presented below.

Prison custody

Between 1 July 2011 and 30 June 2013, the National Deaths in Custody Program (NDICP) has collected and analysed data on the following cases of deaths in prison custody:

  • 95 total deaths in prison custody across Australia (including 15 Indigenous deaths; 16%).
  • The majority of deaths were among the 55 years and older age group (41%; n=39) and the 40 to 50 year age group (35%; n=33). The mean age at death was 50.7 years and the median age was 50 years.
  • All but one of those who died were males.
  • More than two-thirds of deaths in prison were due to natural causes (n=64), most commonly cancer. Hanging deaths accounted for 19 percent (n=17) of prison custody deaths, with light fittings/ventilation grills/door handles the most common hanging points and bed sheets the most common material used.
  • Data for 89 of the 95 deaths were available for manner of death. Of the 89 deaths, 72 percent (n=64) were due to natural causes, 24 percent (n=21) were self-inflicted and five percent (n=4) were unlawful homicides.
  • The most serious offence leading to incarceration for 63 percent (n=60) of people who died in custody was a violent offence. Violent offences were the most common serious offence among both Indigenous and non-Indigenous prisoners. Theft-related offences and drug-related offences each accounted for 15 percent of the most serious offences associated with incarceration.
  • Of the 95 deaths in prison custody over the reporting period, 76 percent were of sentenced prisoners and 24 percent were of unsentenced prisoners.
  • Prison cells were the primary location of deaths in prison custody (42%; n=40), followed closely by public hospitals (38%; n=36). Deaths in prison hospitals were less common (15%; n=14), as were deaths in other custodial settings (4%; n=5).
  • As at the end of the financial year 2011–12 (30 June 2012), the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) recorded a total Australian prison population of 29,381 (including 7,981 Indigenous Prisoners; 27%). The 42 prisoners who died in custody during this financial year represent 0.14 percent of the total prison population.
  • The number of Indigenous deaths at the end of financial year 2011–12 (n=6) represents 0.08 percent of the Indigenous prisoner population and 0.02 percent of the overall prisoner population.
  • As at the end of the financial year 2012–13 (30 June 2013), the ABS recorded a total prison population in Australia of 30,775 (including 8,430 Indigenous prisoners; 27%). The 53 prisoners who died in custody during this financial year represent 0.13 percent of the total prison population.
  • The number of Indigenous deaths at the end of financial year 2012–13 (n=9) represents 0.1 percent of the Indigenous prisoner population and 0.03 percent of the overall prisoner population.

Police custody and custody-related operations

Between 1 July 2011 and 30 June 2013, the NDICP collected and analysed data on the following cases of deaths in police custody and custody-related operations:

  • 49 deaths in police custody and custody-related operations (6 Indigenous deaths; 12%).
  • 45 percent (n=22) were Category 1a and 1b deaths (close contact), while 55 percent (n=27) were Category 2 deaths (operational/detainment related).
  • Just over half (51%; n=25) of the deaths were among the 25–39 year age group. The 40–54 year old group accounted for 33 percent (n=16) of deaths. There was a large difference between median Indigenous age of death and non-Indigenous age of death (27.5 years compared with 41 years respectively).
  • Males constituted the majority of deaths (96%; n=47).
  • The most common cause of death was external/multiple trauma (43%, n=21), which includes injuries sustained during/following motor vehicle pursuits (MVPs), as well as directly inflicted injuries such as stab wounds. Gunshot was the second most common cause, accounting for 23 percent (n=11) of deaths. Of the 11 gunshot deaths, five were police shootings and six were self-inflicted injuries. There were no hanging deaths in the reporting period.
  • 12 deaths occurred due to external/multiple trauma during/after an MVP by police during the reporting period (8 in 2011–12 and 4 in 2012–13), which represents 25 percent of all deaths in the reporting period. All MVP deaths were males, with two being Indigenous. The deaths were approximately evenly distributed across the less than 25 years, 25–39 years and 40–59 year age groups.
  • Coronial reports identified that similar proportions of deaths were self-inflicted (35%; n=17), or the result of accidents (39%; n=19). Five of the six Indigenous deaths were classed as accidents; one was classed as ‘other’.
  • The alleged offence leading to police contact was most frequently recorded against the violent offences category (41%; n=20), followed by traffic offences (18%; n=9).
  • Over half of the deaths in police custody and custody-related operations occurred in public places (57%; n=28). Private property (20%; n=10) and public hospitals (16%; n=8) represented the majority of the remaining cases.
  • The majority (78%; n=38) of deaths occurred while police were attempting to detain an individual. Seven deaths (14%) occurred in other circumstances; for example, during police escorts and four deaths occurred in an institutional setting (8%). There were no deaths classified as occurring during escape.
  • MVP was the method of detainment that resulted in the most deaths (27%; n=13). Raids and the other/shooting categories accounted for 18 percent each (n=9 each), followed by sieges (16%; n=8). Consistent with the data definitions used in this monitoring program, deaths of persons who were innocent parties to a police operation are not deaths in custody. These individuals were not detained, nor were in the process of being detained, by police.

Overview of long-term trends

Since 1979–80, a total of 2,463 deaths in custody have occurred, with 1,487 deaths in prison (60%), 953 deaths in police custody and custody-related operations (39%), 18 (0.7%) deaths in youth detention or welfare facilities and five (0.2%) deaths of individuals occurring in other criminal justice-related settings; for example, while being apprehended by Australian Federal Police officers. Of the 2,463 deaths in custody since 1979–80, 470 were Indigenous people and 1,993 were of non-Indigenous background.

Prison custody

  • There have been 1,487 deaths in prison custody since 1979–80 (including 253 Indigenous prisoners; 17%).
  • Deaths in prison custody have typically occurred most frequently among the 25–39 year age group (38%; n=569). Indigenous prisoners have historically died at younger ages than non-Indigenous prisoners. Since 1979, 70 percent of Indigenous prisoners who died in custody have been aged 39 years or younger (n=177) compared with 53 percent non-Indigenous prisoners (n=664).
  • Male deaths in prison custody have outnumbered female deaths in custody throughout the monitoring program’s history. Of all deaths in prison custody, males have constituted 96 percent (n=1,425).
  • Natural cause deaths have been the most common cause of death since 2000–01.The most common natural cause of death in prison custody has been from cardiac-related causes.
  • Hanging deaths have declined, particularly since 2004–05. The most frequently used hanging points have been ‘other fitting in cell’ and cell bars, while the most common material used has been sheets (44%; n=244).
  • Deaths due to drug or alcohol acute toxicity and external trauma have remained consistently low over time.
  • Violent offences have consistently been the most serious offence associated with the deceased person’s detention since 1979 (53%; n=784), followed by theft-related offences (26%; n=391); however, rates of this offence category have decreased since the late 1990s. This has been the case for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous prisoners.
  • Of all prison custody deaths, sentenced prisoners account for 69 percent (n=1017) of deaths, while 31 percent (n=455) of deaths were of unsentenced prisoners.
  • Almost half of all prison deaths occurred in prison cells (52%; n=764), followed by public hospitals (29%; n=431) and prison hospitals (9%; n=130).

Police custody and custody-related operations

There have been 750 deaths in police custody and custody-related operations since 1989–1990.

  • Category 1a and b (close contact) and Category 2 (operational/detainment-related) have both been decreasing in the past decade; however prior to this, Category 2 contacts were more frequent.
  • Indigenous persons have comprised 20 percent (n=147) of the 750 recorded deaths.
  • The majority of deaths involved persons aged 25–39 years (43%; n=324), followed by those aged less than 25 years (29%, n=219). The majority of Indigenous deaths have been in the younger age groups, with 42 percent (n=58) of deaths in the less than 25 years group and 38 percent (n=53) in the 25–39 years age group. Comparatively, non-Indigenous deaths have been more widely distributed across the age groups.
  • 93 percent (n=672) of deaths have been male and seven percent female (n=49); this trend has remained stable over time.
  • Deaths in police custody and custody-related operations have been primarily attributed to accidents since 1989–90 (40%; n=96). Self-inflicted deaths have been the second most common manner of death, accounting for 32 percent (n=238) and have been gradually decreasing.
  • External and multiple trauma, such as experienced during/after MVPs or stab wounds, has been the most frequently occurring cause of death since the early 1990s (33%; n=246). Gunshot wounds were the most common cause of death prior to the early 1990s, after which it became the second most common cause of death (28%; n=210). Hanging deaths have been declining since 1993–94 to the point where there have been no recorded hanging deaths in the past three years. Natural cause deaths have been consistently low since 1989–90, accounting for 10 percent (n=77) of deaths.
  • The violent offences category was the most serious offence category occurring at the highest frequency throughout 1989–90 to present (32%; n=237). Theft-related offences were the next most frequent category, associated with 21 percent (n=157) of deaths. Since 2001–02 to present, theft-related offences have been decreasing.
  • Similar to the present reporting period, most deaths in police custody and custody-related operations have occurred in public places (43%; n=321). Public hospitals have been the second most frequent location of death (26%, n=192), although the frequency has fluctuated greatly over time.
  • Deaths while attempting to detain have been the most common category associated with police custody and custody-related operations deaths since 1989–90, accounting for 73 percent (n=547) of deaths. While this is the most common category, numbers have generally been decreasing since 2008–09. Deaths in police institutional settings have been the next most common category, accounting for 23 percent (n=171) of deaths, but they have occurred much less frequently than the former category. Police institutional setting deaths have been gradually declining since 2004–05.
  • Methods of detainment have varied substantially on an annual basis, but MVPs have consistently been the most common method resulting in a death over the last 24 years, constituting 23 percent (n=219) of police custody deaths. The ‘other pursuits’ category has typically been the least frequently recorded method of detainment.