Action at last on squalid cells

by Chris Griffith
Published 20 December 1992 in The Sun-Herald


my face


The road to ending deaths in custody in Australia, both black and white, is long and up-hill.

Ask federal Human Rights Commissioner Brian Burdekin, who after almost five years of campaigning has succeeded in the quest to close forever the notorious B and C blocks at the Townsville Correctional Centre.

Burdekin said many cells breached international conventions and the Australian correctional standards for the treatment of prisoners. Observation cells were unsewered, with no running water, and unsatisfactory ventilation.

Unfortunately this is too late for 28-year-old Aboriginal prisoner Brian Docherty, who hanged himself in such a cell in C block on December 4. Disturbingly, he died in the same cell as non-Aboriginal prisoner Stephen Lennon, 20, who on June 1 hanged himself with his bed sheets.

Docherty was among 11 people to die in custody in Queensland this year, and one of two Aborigines.

Of these 11, 3 died in police custody, including one person who swallowed an arsenic pill while being interviewed by the Drug Squad. The other 8 deaths were in prison: 5 by suicide, 2 by drug overdose, and 1 by natural causes.

While it may not be possible to eliminate all deaths, Docherty's death in the same cell as Lennon's six months earlier could have been avoided had the warnings been headed.

Burdekin, who said he "can't think of a cell in Australia that's got worse conditions", had taken his concerns to the Kennedy Commission which in 1988 described cells in Townsville and Brisbane as "hopelessly inadequate".

On June 30 this year, after Lennon's death, Burdekin wrote to Premier Goss urging that B and C blocks not be used again. Burdekin said Corrective Services Minister Glenn Milliner replied in September promising the blocks, which had been closed, would be used only for emergencies.

Demolition of B and C blocks, too, had been announced in the state budget along with a much-overdue $9.1 million upgrade of the prison over the next three years.

However, on November 30, Burdekin wrote back to Milliner after his Cairns regional director alerted him to prisoners being transferred into the cells after a fire had wrecked the jail's new high security reception unit on November 21.

Burdekin was so concerned he took the unusual step of requested a reply in 24 hours. However, he says he received no reply. Docherty hung himself four days later.

It was therefore distasteful that the Minister last Saturday described Burdekin as an arm-chair critic who should "butt out" of the issue.

Fortunately that comment has not stopped Burdekin and Corrective Services Commission director-general Keith Hamburger from reaching an historic agreement after they toured the Townsville jail.

The two agreed that B and C blocks would never be used after this episode. They also agreed on increased educational and vocational programs to assist prison rehabilitation, and a broad-based consultation process. A review of implementation will occur by January 21.

The Corrective Services Commission says the 18 prisoners still in sewered C block cells will be moved back in around three weeks depending on the availability of tradespeople, especially electricians, who are rebuilding the reception unit.

Hopefully the Hamburger-Burdekin agreement will be the first of some new giant strides to reduce deaths in custody, and where Aborigines are concerned, their health and life-styles.

Unfortunately, the incidence of custody deaths nationally has not fallen since the 1980-89 period studied by the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

Between 1980-1989, there were 105 Aboriginal and 421 non-Aboriginal deaths, an average of 53 per year. In 1990-91, that average increased to 67, with 19 Aboriginal and 95 non-Aboriginal deaths.

Despite a fall in incarcerations in 1990-91, Queensland custody deaths have not decreased significantly. The 11 this year were preceded by 9 in 1991 and 12 in 1990. In 1990-91 Queensland's 21 deaths rated equal second to NSW's 34. Of the 32 Queensland deaths in 1990-92, 9 were Aboriginal, and 23 non-Aboriginal.

The Australian Institute of Criminology, which compiled these figures, notes a "substantial and pleasing fall" nationally in Aboriginal deaths in police custody, but said the increase in deaths in prison custody had reflected an increase in prison population.

It is therefore appropriate the main strategy of governments and of the 1991 Deaths In Custody report is to get people out of prisons.

The report's implementation appears underway at last. In March, the Federal Government made its formal response with substantial funding increases in the 1992/93 financial year.

The Goss Government this year has allocated $10.5m over three years to this strategy of minimising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners whose numbers in jail far exceed their proportion in the community.

To effect this, the Government has established a cell visitors' program, and pilot bail-out projects are operating in Brisbane, Cairns, Townsville, and Mt Isa. They aim to move prisoners eligible for bail into alternative accommodation with medical treatment and counselling.

The first overnight sobering up, or more politely, diversionary centre will open in Mt Isa early next year, and will too provide health screening, nursing supervision, and counselling. Important too is the consultation and monitoring committees now being established to involve Aboriginal representatives in the development of criminal justice policy.

Last week the Government established a 12-person Overview Committee of Aboriginal representatives which will work with an interdepartmental committee on the Deaths in Custody report's implementation.

Early next year Attorney-General Dean Wells also expects to introduce an Aboriginal Justice Advisory Committee (AJAC), a permanent Aboriginal liaison body on criminal justice matters recommended for each state in the report.

However Foundation For Aboriginal and Islander Research Action (FAIRA) co-ordinator Bob Weatherall believes the area needing most attention is heath, the subject of 72 of the report's 339 recommendation.

"Without trivialising them, the deaths in custody in Queensland are minute compared to the deaths of aboriginal people who die outside from heart disease, diabetes, and diseases already eradicated from the non-Aboriginal community."

Certainly Mr Weatherall's concern was verified last week by a study which said the life expectancy for Queensland Aborigines was around 20 years less than for non-Aborigines.

It will therefore be a challenge for the State Government to implement report recommendations which go beyond incarceration issues to Aboriginal health, education, employment, independence, and self-determination.

Otherwise Mr Weatherall's claim these initiatives are "token gestures" and, given the size of the problem, that the Government's $10.5m is "a pittance" may be founded. Time will tell.