Is prison good for blacks?

The heading I have used above will undoubtedly enrage some but the evidence given below by David Biles supports it. David Biles is a consultant criminologist and was head of research with the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody

Biles has written the article below to put into context a scandalous case in which a cop killed a black in his custody

RECENT media coverage of the legal proceedings relating to the death of Cameron (also known as Mulrunji) Doomadgee at the Palm Island police station in November 2004 has inevitably raised a number of questions about the phenomena of deaths in custody in general.

This case and several others that have been mentioned recently might have caused us to believe that deaths in custody were continuing to occur at a similar rate to that established by the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, which sat from late 1987 to early 1991 and examined 99 cases that occurred between 1980 and 1989. During that decade data were collected on non-Aboriginal as well as Aboriginal deaths that occurred in police custody and in Australian prisons, even though the former were not subjected to close scrutiny.

This preliminary data collection exercise found quite unexpectedly that Aboriginal people in both police custody and in prison were no more likely to die than non-Aboriginal people in either form of custody.

That finding prompted some heated discussion among the royal commission staff, because it indicated that the basic assumption underlying the establishment of the royal commission was misconceived.

Some staff members suggested that what was needed was either an investigation of all deaths in custody, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, or the focus of the inquiry should be the over-representation of Aboriginal people in both forms of custody.

The fact that neither of these options was considered was a disappointment to some staff members, but towards the end of the inquiry there was greater emphasis placed on the reasons why so many Aboriginal people were behind bars in the first place. Another cause of criticism of the royal commission was the fact that even though many police and prison officers were found to be at fault in performing their duties, none of their shortcomings was found to be sufficiently serious to justify the laying of criminal charges.

That fact alone places the Doomadgee case in a different category as the senior sergeant-in-charge of the Palm Island police station, Chris Hurley, was subsequently charged with manslaughter and acquitted by a

Supreme Court jury in Townsville in June 2007.

That may not be the end of the matter, however, as it is assumed by many people close to the case that Hurley may at some stage face a civil charge, where the standard of proof will be on the balance of probability rather than beyond reasonable doubt as is required in criminal cases.

A further criticism of the royal commission was the fact that in its detailed examination of the 99 cases it never gave serious consideration to the possibility that at least some of the cases of apparent suicide by hanging could have been accidental deaths due to the practice known as sexual asphyxia.

It is possible that some of the legal staff, as well as some of the commissioners, had no knowledge of this subject, or if they did they may have taken the view, quite reasonably, that any public mention of this behaviour may have encouraged others to imitate it. One can only speculate that either ignorance, prudence or coyness prevented this subject from even being considered.

The royal commission cost more than $40 million, and a further $400 million to implement most of its recommendations.

It was the subject of intense media interest, both internationally and nationally, while its hearings were being held, but many of its general findings were never fully understood by the public, or by many practitioners working in criminal justice.

This may have been due to the fact that its reports were nearly always very long, to the point that it is doubtful if any individual can honestly claim to have read every word that the royal commission published.

For example, another of the unexpected findings of the research undertaken by the royal commission was the fact that convicted offenders serving non-custodial sentences such as probation, community service orders or parole were much more likely to die while serving those orders than were offenders serving prison sentences.

In other words, imprisonment actually reduces the probability of death.

This should not be particularly surprising when one considers the high-risk lifestyle lived by many of those involved in crime.

The risks include taking too many drugs, drinking too much alcohol, smoking too much, driving too fast and generally living a chaotic life.

For all its negative features, prison does at least provide three meals a day, and reduces (even if it does not entirely eliminate) the consumption of drugs.

It also provides basic medical care and some degree of social support.

For a host of economic and humanitarian reasons, the aim must always be to keep the number of people in prison to an absolute minimum so that it is only used as a last resort, but the consequences of imprisonment are not always totally negative.

What has happened to deaths in custody since the conclusion of the royal commission? The answer is a mixed one.

Deaths in police custody have reduced significantly, while the opposite has been the case with prisons.

The improvement in the police custody deaths is almost certainly due to police forces across Australia taking the job of looking after Aboriginal detainees more seriously (by, for example, encouraging Aboriginal elders to stay with detainees) and, perhaps more importantly, making an effort to get Aboriginal detainees out on bail or transferred to prison as soon as possible.

On the prison side of the equation, there has been a massive increase in both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal deaths and this is totally the result of a similar increase in prison numbers that has occurred in the last 20 years. Over that period the total daily average number of prisoners in Australia has more than doubled from fewer than 14,000 in 1990 to very nearly 29,000 today.

Also, to our national shame, Aboriginal adults who comprise almost exactly 2 per cent of the total adult population now make up over 25 per cent of our prison population.

It is still the case, however, that non-Aboriginal prisoners are more likely to die than Aboriginal prisoners.


Posted by John Ray (M.A.; Ph.D.). For a daily critique of Leftist activities, see DISSECTING LEFTISM. To keep up with attacks on free speech see TONGUE-TIED. Also, don't forget your daily roundup of pro-environment but anti-Greenie news and commentary at GREENIE WATCH . Email me here

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