Thirty years ago, the then prime minister of Australia, Bob Hawke, deeply troubled by the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who were dying in custody, announced a Royal Commission.
The Royal Commission was initiated five years before Steven Freeman was born and almost a decade before the birth of Jonathon Hogan. Steven and Jonathon, two proud young Aboriginal men who were born and raised in Canberra, died in custody in the last two years. Steven died in the AMC in 2016 and Jonathan died in Junee Prison in February this year.
The Royal Commission found that while Aboriginal people do not die at a higher rate than non-
Aboriginal people in custody, the rate at which Aboriginal people are taken into custody is
A primary finding of the Commission was that to address black deaths in custody there needed to be a genuine commitment to understanding and addressing the reasons for there being so many Aboriginal people in custody.
The 339 recommendations which the Royal Commission made were, therefore, designed, in the main, to address the causes of the disproportionate rate of contact which Aboriginal people have with the criminal justice system and the consequent disproportionate rates of incarceration which they suffer.
At the time that the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody reported in 1991, two years before Steven Freeman was born, Aboriginal people were eight times more likely to be imprisoned than non-Aboriginal people. When Steven and Jonathon died in custody, in 2016 and 2018 respectively, an Aboriginal person in Canberra was 21 times more likely than a non-Aboriginal person to be incarcerated in Canberra .
An increase of more than 250per cent in the intervening 25 years.
The number of Aboriginal people in custody in Canberra, whether at Bimberi or at the AMC, is an
indictment of the ACT government and the effectiveness of its response to the needs of the
Aboriginal community in Canberra.
When one has regard to almost any indicator of the life circumstances of Indigenous people in
Canberra: the second highest incarceration rate; the second highest rate of child removal in Australia; that an Aboriginal child in Canberra is on average two years behind a non-Aboriginal child at school; that 46 per cent of Aboriginal males over the age of 15 living in Canberra have used an illicit drug in the last twelve months; and that 35 per cent or about 700 of the 2000 Aboriginal children living in Canberra live in poverty, it reflects, in a broader sense, a lack of commitment by the Government and indeed the non-Aboriginal community of Canberra to reconciliation.
The over-arching theme of the report of the Royal Commission is that “the end of the situation where so many Aboriginal people live and die in custody will only be achieved if other Australians can, in a spirit of justice and humanity, accord Aboriginal people control over their lives and futures, give them freedom to determine their own future and find their own place as a distinct culture within Australian society, and provide them with the resources that are necessary to overcome the handicaps they suffer as a result of what has happened in the past so there can be hope of a freely negotiated reconciliation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians.”
The families of Steven Freeman and Jonathon Hogan have no reason to believe that “the spirit of
justice and humanity” which the Royal Commission speaks of is present in the Canberra that their dead sons grew up in and experienced. Steven and Jonathon spent their entire lives as a part of our community. Their short lives and their premature and preventable deaths provide a window into Canberra society. It is a window that far too few of us, including within the ACT government, have the courage or the concern to approach let alone look through.
Narelle King, speaking after the release of the Coroner’s report into the death of her son Steven,
talked about her sadness and the devastation which his death had caused her and her family. The
coroner’s report, when considered together with the blistering report delivered by Phillip Moss into the care of Steven Freeman in the AMC in the year before he died, reveal just how broken are the systems in place for addressing Aboriginal disadvantage and achieving justice and reconciliation for Aboriginal people.
Despite their sadness and the deep and irretrievable loss which they have suffered both Narelle King and Jonathon’s father Matt Hogan and their families are driven by a determination that what they have suffered never be experienced or endured by the parents or family of any other young Aboriginal man or woman in Canberra.
The levels of despair, distrust and cynicism within the Aboriginal community of Canberra are high. It is generally felt that while ever the ACT Government fails to empower the local Aboriginal community by refusing to adopt and act on the central tenets of the Royal Commission, namely the principles of self-determination and reconciliation, that none of the drivers of the levels of Indigenous incarceration in Canberra will change.
If so, we are doomed to see the tragic fates suffered by Steven Freeman, Jonathon Hogan and countless other Aboriginal men and women before them repeated again and again.
Julie Tongs OAM is the chief exuective of Winnunga Nimmityjah Aboriginal and Community Service.