Report on Deaths in Custody - people dying at high rates

Gerry Georgatos The Stringer 24 May 2013

Today (24/5/13), the Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus welcomed the National Deaths in Custody Program Monitoring Report (NIDCP) finding that deaths in custody rates have decreased significantly in the past decade. Let us have a look if this is really the case. The reality is that Aboriginal deaths in custody are on the rise.

The report is published by the Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC).

"Twenty years after the landmark Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, the rates of deaths in custody for Indigenous and non-Indigenous prisoners, particularly suicides, are some of the lowest recorded," said Mr Dreyfus.

The AIC report argues that between 2003 to 2011 most deaths in custody were due to natural causes. On May 20 The Stringer published Why are more prisoners dying from 'natural causes'?

The AIC report found that Aboriginal people are now "less likely to die in prison (0.16 per 100 in 2010-11) than non-Indigenous people (0.22 per 100)."

The report found "that in the 20 years since the Royal Commission, the number of Indigenous prisoners has almost doubled."

The report noted that between January 1, 1980 to June 30 2011 there have been 2,325 total deaths in custody across Australia and of these 450 have been Aboriginal deaths, therefore 19 per cent of the total custodial deaths. In this period, 1,397 of the deaths have been in prison custody, of which 238 have been Aboriginal, therefore 17 per cent of the total prison deaths. 905 were police custodial deaths of which 204 were Aboriginal deaths and therefore 23 per cent of the total police custodial deaths. There were 18 deaths of juveniles while in custody, of which eight were Aboriginal youth and therefore 44 per cent of the total deaths.

"Analysis of data captured by the NDICP over the last 32 years demonstrates that significant improvements have been made to prevent deaths in some areas, but that work should continue in order to reduce other forms of deaths in custody," wrote Adam Tomison, the AIC director in the report's foreward.

"First, it is of concern to see that the proportion of Indigenous prisoners has almost doubled over the 20 years since the RCIADC. In 1991, when the final report was handed down by the RCIADC, Indigenous people represented on in seven people in prison (14 per cent ABS, 1998) and one in seven deaths in prison custody."

"In 2011, Indigenous people represented just over one in four people in prison and one in five deaths. Therefore, the number of Indigenous people in prison appears to have increased at a faster rate than the number of deaths of Indigenous prisoners."

"Over the last eight years, the rate of death has been consistently lower among Indigenous prisoners than their non-Indigenous counterparts. It can be concluded that the headline finding of the RCIADC that Indigenous persons were no more likely to die in prison custody than non-Indigenous persons remains true today. At the heart of the problem is the over-representation of Indigenous persons at every stage of the criminal justice system. Any efforts to reduce the number of Indigenous deaths in custody must therefore incorporate a focus on reducing the number of Indigenous people who end up in prison."

"A second point of concern is the relative age profile of Indigenous deaths in custody when compared with their non-Indigenous counterparts. Almost half of all Indigenous deaths (48 per cent) in prison custody were of persons aged 25 to 39 years, compared with less than two in five (38 per cent) for the equivalent non-Indigenous cohort. For deaths in police custody and custody-related operations, almost two in five (39 per cent) Indigenous deaths were of young persons under the age of 25 years, compared with just over one in four (27 per cent) for their non-Indigenous counterparts. Apart from dying at relatively younger ages than non-Indigenous persons, a greater proportion of Indigenous deaths are due to natural causes, "noted Mr Tomison.

In 2010-11 there were 85 total deaths in custody of which 21 were Aboriginal deaths and therefore 25 per cent. Therefore it appears that indeed Aboriginal deaths in custody appear on the rise rather than decreasing, and the significant reduction overall is not a significant one. The Aboriginal deaths in prison custody for the year accounted for 21 per cent of the prison population deaths, while Aboriginal deaths in police custody accounted for 26 per cent of the total police custodial deaths. Despite the disproportionate high arrest rates of Aboriginal people and the disproportionate incarceration rates of Aboriginal people these are horrific rates, both crude totals and in proportion to total numbers.

In that period there was also a death of an Aboriginal juvenile while in detention.

In terms of comparative long term trends the report noted "throughout the 1980s, the number of deaths in custody increased steadily from a low of 21 deaths in 1979-80 to a high of 83 deaths in 1989-90. During the 1990s, the number of deaths in custody continued to increase, reaching a peak in 1997-98 with 109 deaths. Since this peak, there has been a moderate decline in total deaths, reaching a 20 year low in 2005-06 of 54 deaths.

However, since this low, the number of deaths has again started to increase."

The report noted that in the last decade "the number of deaths resulting from natural causes has surpassed self-inflicted deaths as the most prevalent type of death in prison custody."

The number of Aboriginal "natural cause deaths in 2009-10 was the highest ever recorded and for non-Indigenous prisoners, 2009-10 was the second highest on record, with 2010-11 representing the peak in the natural cause deaths among this group."

Medical groups and prison reform advocates have long called for an inquiry into the rise into natural cause deaths.

A few years back the Australian Medical Association (AMA) then national vice president Dr Steve Hambleton supported the call for an investigation into natural cause deaths.

"The ages of Australian prisoners dying are alarming. The differentiation between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and other Australians makes it even more disturbing," said Dr Hambleton.

The writer of the article, Gerry Georgatos declares an impartiality conflict of interest. He has completed two Masters which have topically included and analysed Australian Deaths in Custody and he is a PhD researcher in Australian Deaths in Custody and Australian Custodial Systems. He has written widely on deaths in custody and has called for an inquiry to better understand the rise in natural cause deaths. In Crikey, in 2011, he was quoted, "I have deep concerns about the attribution of manner and cause of death and therefore about the classification of deaths in custody. There is nothing natural about a person dying of causes that basic medical intervention could prevent. More than 50 per cent of Aboriginal folk who die in prison are classified as natural cause deaths but maybe what has occurred is that medical attention wasn't flagged or their insulin dependency was not given proper care or they were maltreated or neglected."

Why are more prisoners dying from 'natural causes'?

The Stringer 20 May 2013

Deaths from natural causes have become the most frequent cause of death in Australian prisons. In 2011 PhD researcher in Australian Deaths in Custody, Gerry Georgatos called for an independent investigation to explain the sharp rise in the number of Australian prison deaths attributed to 'natural causes'. This year there has been a staggering wave of natural cause deaths in Victorian prisons.

Last week, Victorian Corrections Commissioner Jan Shuard said to the Public Accounts and Estimates Committee that there had been 12 prisoners who had died in prison custody since the beginning of the year. This figure is startling because in most years deaths in custody in Victorian prisons average less than this number.

Nine were described to have died of 'natural causes'.

In 2011, Gerry Georgatos' research underwrote the opening and closing articles of an eleven series Deaths in Custody investigation by reporter Inga Ting for Crikey.

http://www.crikey.com.au/2011/06/22/deaths-in-custody-why-are-more-priso...

http://www.crikey.com.au/2011/04/15/deaths-in-custody-20yrs-after-a-roya...

Gerry Georgatos pointed out in Ms Ting's article that natural causes accounted for almost three in four prison custody deaths in 2008 and this statistic has continued. He also pointed out that equally disturbing are the young ages at which many of these prisoners are dying.

In the 2011 Crikey article Georgatos said, "You can't have people dying in significant numbers at these young ages - in their 20s, 30s, and so on - and deem them as natural causes."

"We would not, and do not, accept this elsewhere. We seek the cause of death and whatever may have contributed to premature deaths and, where possible, lay charges in pursuit of culpability and liability."

In Ms Ting's Crikey article Georgatos rejected the Australian Institute of Criminology's (AIC) claim that the rise in natural cause deaths is "probably linked to an ageing prison population and a prison population with more health problems than the general population", and said that these "assumptions" need validation.

"I have deep concerns about the attribution of manner and cause of death and therefore about the classification of deaths in custody," said Georgatos. "There is nothing natural about a person dying of causes that basic medical intervention could prevent. More than 50 per cent of Aboriginal folk who die in prison are classified as natural cause deaths but maybe what has occurred is that medical attention wasn't flagged or their insulin dependency was not given proper care or they were maltreated or neglected."

At the time he called for an inquiry, and he still continues to argue that such an inquiry is needed. At the time of Georgatos' call for the inquiry, Australian Medical Association (AMA) national vice president Dr Steve Hambleton told Ms Ting that he would support an investigation into natural cause deaths. He said that the AMA had previously campaigned on this issue.

"The ages of Australian prisoners dying are alarming. The differentiation between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and other Australians makes it even more disturbing," said Dr Hambleton.

Victoria's spate of prisoner deaths this year should be an opportunity for Georgatos' and Hambleton's calls for an inquiry to be heeded.

Commissioner Shuard's disclosure had followed silence on the issue and the Productivity Commission's latest report which suggested there are no apparent unnatural causes of death in prison custody.

Two weeks ago a prisoner at the Melbourne Remand Centre committed suicide.

In February, a 36 year old inmate hung himself at Port Phillip Prison.

In the beginning of February a 31 year old man hung himself in his cell at the high security Barwon prison. The cell was supposed to have no hanging points.

The Barwon death was in a unit of the prison, Banksia, where prisoners were locked for 23 hours a day.

"The number of deaths in custody goes up and down. There is not a regular number, it can be as high as 14, I think, as it was in 2007-08, and this year so far there have been 12," said Commissioner Shuard.

Human rights advocate Charandev Singh said to The Age reporter Andrea Petrie that he had never come across so many deaths in custody in such a short period.

He said to Ms Petrie that he knew of two other Victorian prisoners who were in critical condition in hospital, one from Port Phillip and another from Barwon.

"At least one of those men does not look like he is going to survive, so the figure might rise to 14," he said to Ms Petrie.

Mr Singh said he believed the circumstances of these so-called 'natural deaths' were more indicative of various medical neglect and inaccessibility to appropriate health care.

The Australian prison population has more than doubled in the last twenty years from 15,000 to 31,000. Between 2000 to 2008 prison custodial deaths attributed to natural causes rose to 24.6 per cent per year nationwide. From 1990 to 1999 natural deaths had been 16.3 per cent and in the 1980s they had been at 10.6 per cent.

Georgatos has said that Australia has one of the world's worst prison suicide rates and the classification of so many unnatural deaths should be examined. Ultimately it is the Coroner who determines whether a death is natural or otherwise but Georgatos said that firstly the criteria in determining classifications should be re-examined. Secondly, he said an inquiry into prisoner health should be commenced.