In 1987, Bob Hawke called for a Royal Commission to examine the social, cultural and specific circumstances of 99 Aboriginal deaths in custody between 1980 and 1989. 30 years later, the situation is worse.

In 1991, 339 recommendations were handed down by the commission, many of which were ignored. 

Since the findings were released in 1991 (starting from 91-92 financial year and ending at last available official data in 2012-13) there have been 339 Indigenous deaths in prison and police custody:

  • 204 in Prisons
  • 135 in Police Custody and police related operations

The commission investigated 63 people who had died in police custody and 33 in prison, including three in juvenile detention; 88 males and 11 females; and an age range of 14 to 62 years. 

The RCIADIC found that of the 99 deaths in custody:

  • 30 were by hanging of which all were self inflicted
  • 23 by external trauma of which 4 were self inflicted
  • 4 were self-inflicted
  • 5 were as a result of actions by custodians
  • 2 were as a result of actions by fellow prisoners
  • 1 was by accident (falling)
  • 2 (head injuries) were as a result of actions by civilian persons outside of custody
  • 5 (head injuries) were sustained outside custody but in what circumstances is unknown
  • 2 (head injuries) were sustained in circumstances unknown, including whether they were sustained inside or outside of custody
  • 1 (head injury) was as a result of a fight with police officers in a street outside a hotel
  • 1 was as a result of a juvenile lighting fire
  • 9 were immediately associated with substance misuse
  • 37 were by natural causes

The key finding was that so many Aboriginal people were dying in custody because so many Aboriginal people were being thrown in police lock ups and prisons. We should be reducing imprisonment rates through changes to policing, laws and policies.

  • The conclusions are clear.

    When the Royal Commission provided their recommendations in 1991, they quoted "Aboriginal people die in custody at a rate relative to their proportion of the whole population which was totally unacceptable and which would not be tolerated if it occurred in the non-Aboriginal community. But this occurs not because Aboriginal people in custody are more likely to die than others in custody but because the Aboriginal population is grossly over-represented in custody. Too many Aboriginal people are in custody too often."

    But since the report, the proportion of adult prisoners who are Indigenous has doubled - 13% of the prison population then to 27% now. So while the rate of Aboriginal deaths in custody has gone down slightly (rate per 1000 people in prison) more Aboriginal people are dying in custody today than when the inquiry happened. And many in circumstances where the recommendations have been ignored. 

    E.g Ms Dhu, Kumanjayi Langdon, Ms Mandijarra, Rebecca Maher


    2.3% Percentage of Aboriginal people in the population of Australia

    From 1979–80 to 2010-11 19% of all deaths in custody have been Aboriginal people - 449 out of 2319

    Recent number of Aboriginal deaths in custody:


    • 13 Aboriginal deaths in Custody out of 71 total (18%)
    • 9 in prison out of 53 total (17%)
    • 4 in police custody out of 18 total (22%)


    • 8 Aboriginal deaths in custody out of 73 total (11%)
    • 6 in prison out of 42 total (14%)
    • 2 in police custody out of 31 total (7%)


    • 19 Aboriginal deaths in Custody out of 83 total (23%)
    • 12 in prison out of 58 total (21%)
    • 7 in police custody out of 25 total (28%)
  • "When I look past my anger I feel deep sorrow – sorrow that this country for over 220 years has not valued Aboriginal lives. If it did, this article would not have to be written.

    I would not lie in bed fearing for my family members that are imprisoned, that the next time I see them will be at their funerals. I wouldn’t be terrified that my own children will one day make a mistake that puts them in a harmful judicial system.

    This country must do better. Conversations are taking place but there must be a sense of urgency because as it stands, Aboriginal people are still dying entirely preventable deaths while incarcerated."

    - Gomeroi woman Kelly Briggs