On 23 November, a coronial inquest into the death of 22-year-old Aboriginal woman Julieka Dhu began in Perth. Dhu died on 4 August 2014 from pneumonia and septic shock, while in the custody of the South Hedland Police. She was in police cells because she had $3622 in outstanding fines.
“She was in custody for three days over petty unpaid fines, which led to her needless and senseless death following inhumane treatment by the WA police,” Shaun Harris, an uncle of Ms Dhu, told Solidarity. “Institutional and systemic racism are responsible for my niece’s death”.
During the inquest, Ms Dhu’s family gave evidence she was a victim of domestic violence and had a number of broken ribs when taken into custody. These injuries became badly infected.
Shaun Harris said, “She was extremely sick, in excruciating pain and agony and begging for her life. Multiple times the police took her to the Hedland health campus. [The campus] also contributed to the neglect and deprivation of liberty inflicted on her by the judicial and health systems in Western Australia.”
Evidence from the enquiry showed that police were very dismissive of her claims to be sick, telling her to “shut up” and “stop acting like a two-year-old” when she was moaning in pain. The police told hospital staff that she was “faking it”. Health staff said that although they believed Ms Dhu was suffering from musculoskeletal pain, they only ever officially recorded “behavioural issues”, never did a blood test, X-ray or even took her temperature, any of which would have revealed her true condition.
On her final trip to the hospital, Mr Harris says CCTV footage shows, “The police dragged my niece out of her cell by her arms on the ground as if she was a dead animal. When they arrived at the hospital they just slung her in the wheelchair, very roughly, her head was laid back.” Evidence from the enquiry suggests that by this time Ms Dhu was dead.
The enquiry comes after more than 16 months of silence and inaction by WA authorities, despite a vigorous campaign by the family seeking both justice and concrete information about the circumstances of her death.
“Before this inquiry, we only had two petty pieces of paper from the hospital that I know of, to explain my niece’s death,” said Shaun Harris. Now the family has been told they will need to wait even longer, with evidence from police being held over until March 2016.
Locked up for being black
The Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in Custody 1991 made extensive recommendations which, if implemented, would have prevented the death of Ms Dhu and countless other Aboriginal people.
At the core of these recommendations are measures designed to stop Aboriginal people coming into custody in the first place. Disgraceful practices such as locking people up for unpaid fines overtly target Aboriginal people who live in poverty and are consistently harassed by police.
The Royal Commission also argued for a massive transfer of resources into the hands of Aboriginal communities to allow for self-determination and to pull communities out of poverty.
However particularly over the last decade, racist policies which criminalise Aboriginal people and attack their right to self-determination have intensified across all levels of government.
The number of Aboriginal people in prison has skyrocketed from 2140 in 1991 to 9300 today. Aboriginal women are the fastest growing number of prisoners.
The Northern Territory Intervention, begun in 2007, epitomises the recent attacks on self-determination, with racist laws that allow for government control over Aboriginal lives. Prison numbers have more than doubled in the NT.
The NT has also recently introduced “paperless arrest” laws, which allow police to detain people for four hours on the mere suspicion that they will commit an offence, including minor offences like “failing to keep a yard clean”. Eighty per cent of people detained under these laws have been Aboriginal.
Already a Warlpiri man, Kwementyaye Langton, who had committed no crime, has died in custody while under paperless arrest. As with Ms Dhu, police said Mr Langton was “feigning illness” before he died of a heart attack. NT Coroner Greg Cavanagh called for the laws to be scrapped as part of the recommendations from his enquiry into Langton’s death. The death prompted a Supreme Court challenge to the laws by North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency, which was struck down in November.
One simple measure, a Custody Notification Service, has been credited with stopping deaths in police custody in NSW since its introduction in 2000, though deaths in prison have continued. Despite this, the Commonwealth has refused to fund a similar service in other states and only recently agreed to extend the funding in NSW until 2019 following protests.
By Paddy Gibson