Thousands march to protest Indigenous deaths in custody

Supporters of the indigenous community gather in front of Parliament House in Melbourne. The...
Supporters of the indigenous community gather in front of Parliament House in Melbourne. The national day of action marks 30 years since the royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody handed down its final report. At least 474 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have died in custody since then, including five people since the start of March this year. Photo: Getty Images
Thousands of Australians are protesting against Indigenous deaths in custody ahead of the 30th anniversary of a landmark royal commission report.

The nationwide protests on Saturday follow the deaths of five Aboriginal people in custody in the past six weeks.

From Alice Springs to Rockhampton and down the east coast, protesters have expressed anger that the royal commission's recommendations have not been adopted thoroughly and that deaths continue.

More than 470 Indigenous people have died in detention since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody published its final report on April 15, 1991.

Since March 2, a man in his 30s has died in a NSW prison hospital, another man and a 44-year-old woman have lost their lives in prisons in NSW and Victoria, 37-year-old Barkindji man Anzac Sullivan has been killed during a police pursuit in Broken Hill, and a 45-year-old male inmate has died in a Perth hospital.

Federal Greens Senator Lidia Thorpe used part of an address outside Victoria's Parliament House to draw attention to an Aboriginal flag at half mast overhead, in deference to the recently deceased Prince Philip - a representative of the colonising power that has oppressed Indigenous people.

Protesters on social media questioned whether the parliament had received permission from traditional custodians to lower their flag.

In Sydney, actor Meyne Wyatt told the crowd: "You sick of hearing about racism? I'm sick of f***ing talking about it."

Gomeroi, Dunghutti and Biripi woman and protest organiser Tameeka Tighe told AAP ahead of the protests that every time she hears of another death she worries it's someone close to her.

"It makes me wonder if it's my brother, it makes me wonder what my connection is to that person and it makes me wonder how many more until this government takes it seriously," she said.

"Do we have to see another 30 years and another 400 deaths? What is that we need to be an emergency?"

Just under one third of the nation's prisoners are Indigenous, despite Indigenous people making up only three per cent of the population.

The numbers are even starker for young people, as half of all youth detainees are Indigenous.

The commission investigated 99 deaths - 66 in police custody, 33 in prison custody and three in juvenile detention - and found "glaring deficiencies" in the standard of care given to many of the deceased.

There appeared to be "little appreciation of and less dedication to the duty of care owed by custodial authorities and their officers to persons in custody", the final report said.

But it also found "immediate causes of the deaths do not include foul play, in the sense of unlawful, deliberate killing of Aboriginal prisoners by police and prison officers".

A 2018 review by Deloitte for the federal government found 64 per cent of the royal commission's 339 recommendations had been fully implemented.

Thirty per cent were partially implemented and six per cent were never implemented.

The review also found the rate of Indigenous incarceration had almost doubled since 1991 and that monitoring of deaths in custody had fallen.

Ms Tighe said it was "not enough" to just demand the implementation of the recommendations.

"To me, they seem quite worthless," she said.

"Even with the recommendations, our loved ones are still being taken at rates much higher than anyone else in the world within the prison system."

She called for both state and federal governments to take responsibility and accountability for deaths in custody, and to provide transparency around the deaths.

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