The 25th Anniversary of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody

The 15th of April 2016 marks 25 years since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody handed down its final report, which set many directions in current Indigenous policy.

The commission was established in 1987 by the Hawke government, and examined 99 Indigenous deaths in custody between 1 January 1980 and 31 May 1989. The key finding of the Royal Commission was that the deaths were due to the combination of police and prisons failing their duty of care, and the high numbers of Indigenous people being arrested and incarcerated. Indigenous and non-Indigenous prisoners did not have different death rates.

The Commission examined both the immediate causes of deaths and the factors leading to Indigenous incarceration. Approximately 40 per cent of the Royal Commission’s 339 recommendations concern social factors including youth policy, education, alcohol, health, employment, housing, land rights, self-determination and reconciliation. This set the foundations for current ‘Close the Gap’ efforts.

Where are we now?

Despite great changes in Indigenous policy in the last 25 years, the number of Indigenous deaths in custody has not declined. Between 1987 and 1991, while the Royal Commission was underway, there were 23 Indigenous deaths in prison custody and 28 in police custody. From 2009 to 2013 (2014 and 2015 data is not yet available) there were 41 Indigenous deaths in prison custody and 19 in police custody (Australian Institute of Criminology, Tables A4 and A15). Royal Commissioner Professor Pat Dodson says that the problems have become worse.

Figure 1: Number of deaths in police and prison custody

Bar chart of deaths in custody since 1991

Source: R Rattan and W Mountain, Indigenous Incarceration in Australia at a glance, The Conversation, 15 April 2016


The continuing high number of deaths obscures changes in both the rate of deaths in custody, and the rate of incarceration.

Rates of death in custody

Since the Royal Commission, Indigenous rates of death in prison custody have drastically declined, and have been below non-Indigenous death rates since 2003. The Australian Institute of Criminology attributes this decline to ‘the significant investment made by police and corrective services agencies in redesigning cells, removing hanging points, improved screening for signs of self-harm and better observation regimes for prisoners deemed at risk.’ This demonstrates improved attention to the custodial duty of care.

Figure 2: Prison Death in Custody rates

Prison custody deaths by Indigenous status, 1981-82 to 2012-13, rate per 100 prisoners

Source: A Baker and T Cullen, Deaths in custody in Australia: National Deaths in Custody Program 2011–12 and 2012–13, AIC Monitoring Reports 26, Australian Institute of Criminology, 2015, p. 9.

In police custody, hanging deaths, the leading non-natural cause of death at the time of the Royal Commission, have almost been eliminated, with no deaths from hanging between 2011 and 2013. Hanging deaths have been declining in prison since the late 1990s, and natural causes (heart disease and cancer) have been the leading causes of death in prisons for over a decade. However, deaths due to mismanagement, particularly failures to screen for or communicate medical and at-risk conditions, still occur.


Incarceration Rates

As rates of death have declined, rates of incarceration have increased. Since the time of the Royal Commission, Indigenous people have doubled as a proportion of the prison population, from 14 percent of the prison population to 28 percent, while making up only 2 percent of the general population. As shown below, in June 2015, Indigenous people were 15.5 times more likely to be incarcerated than non-Indigenous people. A startling 54% of juvenile detainees are Indigenous, making Indigenous youths 26 times more likely to be in detention.

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, among others, has expressed concern that the introduction of ‘paperless arrest’ powers in the Northern Territory will result in Indigenous incarceration rates drastically rising. Another concern is increasing imprisonment for unpaid fines in Western Australia.

Jurisdictional Adult Imprisonment rates for 2015

Rates per 100,000






























Indigenous : non-Indigenous ratio










Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), Prisoners in Australia 2015, cat. no. 4517.0, ABS, Canberra, 2015


What Next?

In the wake of this dramatic increase in incarceration, some have argued that the recommendations of the Royal Commission, particularly on prosecution for minor offences and steps to Indigenous self-determination, were never adequately implemented. Others argue that the Royal Commission did not correctly prioritise the causes of high crime and therefore incarceration rates: substance (abuse, and childhood deprivation, abuse and neglect. The Change the Record Coalition, the Australian Medical Association, the Australian Red Cross, and Save the Children agree that alcohol and drug abuse and poor childhood outcomes are driving Indigenous incarceration, and Indigenous-led programs practicing ‘justice reinvestment’ are needed.

Many stakeholders have called for a new Closing the Gap target to be created for incarceration rates. Introduction of a ‘justice target’ was a recommendation of the 2011 House of Representatives Committee inquiry Doing Time - Time For Doing: Indigenous youth in the criminal justice system. In 2013 setting this target was part of the ALP’s Federal Election Indigenous policy. Minister for Indigenous Affairs Nigel Scullion stated in 2014 that the Government would prioritise acting on Indigenous incarceration through the existing Closing the Gap targets.


Flagpost is a blog on current issues of interest to members of the Australian Parliament

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