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Monday, 19 September 1994
Page: 925

Senator CHAMARETTE (6.16 p.m.) —In the past two weeks in Western Australia there have been four deaths in custody. I want to record here my condolences to the families of those who have needlessly died and my sorrow at our apparent inability to stop this appalling loss of young lives. We were recently able to mark the fourth anniversary of the last West Australian death in police custody, but that record was ended last Tuesday with the death of an Aboriginal man who collapsed while he was being held in court cells. Because of the valuable work of the Aboriginal visitors scheme it was made known to the police that this person had a heart problem and required his medication. Despite this useful information, he was not able to have proper medical care and the resultant tragedy is yet another witness to the failure of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody to actually provide adequate medical access for those who come within the scope of the criminal justice system.

  The three other deaths have all been at the Canning Vale Remand Centre and, tragically, the three young men all knew each other. They were all on remand. We can only guess at the devastation being felt by the circle of friends which encompassed those three men. Beyond the tragedy there is the certain knowledge that these deaths should not have happened and that the Australian community has a duty and responsibility to see that deaths in custody are made a sad chapter in our country's past. What we have at the moment is a situation of despair for those whose families have been shattered or destroyed and shame on our society for allowing these deaths to happen.

  I note with concern that there is little sense of outrage in the wider community, but there most certainly should be. It is difficult perhaps to understand why there should be such equanimity about this scourge which has plagued our country for so many years. Perhaps there is a sense of `It couldn't happen to my child or to me.' Have we allowed ourselves to be convinced that anyone in custody, whether on remand or as punishment, is guilty of a heinous crime and somehow is not deserving of compassion? Has our community decided that people in custody have no human rights? Are we sucked in by the myth that a short, sharp time in prison, even if those people are on remand, is an adequate way of teaching them a lesson? I maintain it is time society learnt the lesson that damaging human lives and placing, in this case, young people in prison while they are still on remand and not proven guilty of any offence is tantamount to aiding and abetting in their deaths.

  We can only speculate about what has shaped community perceptions of this issue. But regardless of the community's attitude, we have to put a stop to it. This country spent some $35 million investigating the deaths of 99 Aboriginal people in custody. The royal commission provided governments and the community with 339 recommendations aimed at putting an end to the tragedy. Each year, each government produces a report showing its proud record in implementing those recommendations. But the deaths continue.

  In Western Australia, the government tells us that more than 90 per cent of the recommendations have been implemented. But still the deaths go on. The Western Australian Deaths In Custody Watch Committee, which was formed early this year, has been very successful in seeing ministers and officials from government departments. It has been heartening to see how ready those in authority have been to discuss matters with the committee, and I most certainly want to record that fact.

  It is clear to even the most casual observer that, for all the goodwill and whatever the level of willingness to address the recommendations, there is an enormous gap between the changed practices and procedures as they are enshrined in the policy manuals and the delivery on the ground. I am not for one moment suggesting that prison officers or police officers are not affected by these deaths. I am sure that they also have a sense of failure, and experience pain and grief over the deaths. But, clearly, there is a failure to effectively implement the changed procedures and practices, and that is a matter for governments and government departments to address, and quickly.

  The three deaths in Canning Vale Remand Centre need to be seen in the context of the extremely high rates of remand which are a pattern of the Western Australian police and court system. Far too many young people are held in custody when they should be bailed or charged by summons. As was pointed out by the chairman of the watch committee last week, some 50 to 60 per cent of those who are held in remand before their court cases are heard are not given a custodial sentence when convicted. The question has to be asked: if no custodial sentence is likely upon conviction, why are these people not bailed immediately after arrest?

  Western Australia is wasting the lives of far too many young people in the 15- to 25-year age group. We are wasting their lives through unemployment and through failing to use their potential for the community's good, and too often we are losing them through suicide or suicide-like deaths in cars, by drugs and alcohol, or simply by allowing them to fall onto society's scrap heap. It is becoming almost predictable that those who die in custody are aged between 18 and 25. The three young men who have died in these past few days in Canning Vale were aged 19 and 21.

  I would like to also focus on one particular death which was not so recent. Stephen Wardle died in the East Perth lockup some seven years ago, and the circumstances surrounding his death have still not been satisfactorily explained. The fact that 17 police officers refused to give evidence at the inquest has left far too many questions and does them no credit.

  The fact that expert evidence acquired by the family from a toxicologist in the United States has not been satisfactorily tested is still a matter of concern. The fact that members of Stephen's family have been subjected to the most extraordinary episodes of police attention also raises concerns. Stephen's death and the subsequent inquiry into it raise concerns not only about the particular case but also about the general situation.

  It may be easy for some to say that the reaction of Stephen's family is one of vindictiveness or even paranoia, but it is clearly the response of a family which is not convinced that their son's death has been fully and justly dealt with. It is also the response of a family which has been devastated and which will not be able to resolve their grief without getting answers to their questions.

  At the general level, Stephen's death raises questions about those deaths in which a lack of care or a lack of due diligence on the part of authorities is a factor, and those incidents in which those same authorities are prepared to stand by and either fail in their duty to investigate properly or, worse, stand in the way of proper inquiry.

  The deaths which occur in our gaols, remand centres and police lockups will never end completely, because no system will ever be perfect. But avoidable deaths will continue until there is a genuine will on the part of governments, corrective service departments and staff at all levels to end them. Governments are clearly not willing to acknowledge their failures in implementing the recommendations of the royal commission. It seems they are also unwilling to commit the time, energy and resources to making sure that changes decided on at the policy level are implemented in fact rather than on paper.

  Ultimately, it seems that the Australian community is prepared to accept that people, especially young people, are going to die as a result of coming into contact with the justice system.