Australian Institute of Criminology

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Conclusion

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). Since NDICP began recording data, the number of deaths in each form of custody has been small, fluctuating annually, and an overall decline in deaths in custody has been observed.

Although the overall number of deaths, and Indigenous deaths in particular, have been declining, the rate of incarceration of Indigenous Australians has remained high and has continued to increase in recent years. In addition, although precise figures are not available, research has demonstrated that contact between police and Indigenous people has also remained high (Joudo Larsen 2010; Weatherburn 2014). The number of female deaths in custody has historically been low and this trend continues in the current monitoring period. This trend is reflective of the smaller amount of contact females have with police and corrective services compared with males.

During the past 33 years, the majority of unsentenced prisoner deaths have resulted from hangings, while the majority of sentenced prisoner deaths have resulted from natural causes. Although rates of death of unsentenced prisoners have declined considerably over this timeframe, more information about the events and stresses leading to an unsentenced prisoner taking their life may provide useful explanatory evidence to assist further with the prevention of these deaths.

With regard to the number of deaths in police custody and custodial operations, it is apparent that over time, the number of deaths occurring in close contact with police (including in cells or as lawful shootings) have declined and in recent years, the number of MVP deaths have also declined. The number of police custody deaths in 2012–13 dropped significantly from 2011–12 and is the lowest recorded since the definition of police custody deaths was expanded in 1990. It will be a number of years before it is clear if this is a consistent trend or an anomaly.

In conclusion, this report highlights some of the key issues identified for deaths in custody for the period 2011–12 and 2012, as well as identifying specific trends evident from 1979–80 onwards. Some of the most significant findings are reiterated below.

  • 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).
  • More than two-thirds of deaths in prison were due to natural causes (n=64), followed by hanging deaths.
  • 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.
  • Between 1 July 2011 and 30 June 2013, there were 49 deaths in police custody and custody-related operations (6 of which related to the deaths of Indigenous prisoners.
  • The most common cause of death was external/multiple trauma (43%, n=21), which includes injuries sustained during/following MVPs, as well as directly inflicted injuries such as stab wounds.
  • Gunshot wound was the second most common cause of death, accounting for 23 percent (n=11). Of the 11 gunshot wound deaths, five were police shootings and six were self-inflicted injuries. There were no hanging deaths in the reporting period.
  • Twelve 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 (2 were of Indigenous background) and 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 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.
  • 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 non-Indigenous.