Aboriginal Deaths in Custody


Aboriginal Deaths in Custody

MARGUK Education Program

99 Aboriginal deaths in custody in Australia from 1980 to 1989 which led to the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

18% of men who died in custody between 1980 and 2000 were Aboriginal.

32% of women who died in custody between 1980 and 2000 were Aboriginal.

379 Aboriginal people died in custody between 1980 and 2007, or close to 18% of all deaths in custody in that time.

13 Aboriginal deaths in custody in 2008 (15% of all deaths); in 2009: 14; in 2010: 12.

2.3% of the population of Australia are Aboriginal.

Aboriginal deaths in custody have gone up by 150% since the Royal Commission findings were handed down in 1991.

No police or prison officers have ever been convicted in relation to an Aboriginal death in custody.


1986: 6 Aboriginal families tour Australia to raise awareness and demand justice for the deaths in custody of their loved ones; 6 Aboriginal men who died between – 1983 & 1986 including a 16 year old youth who was assaulted by 5 off duty police officers.

1987: Prime Minister Bob Hawke responds to public pressure and calls for A Royal Commission to investigate Aboriginal deaths in custody between January 1980 and May 1989 – a total of 99 deaths.

1991: The Royal Commission findings and 339 recommendations are handed down.

1994: There have been 56 more Aboriginal deaths in custody since the Royal Commission started in 1987.

Protests are held across the country to demand the Government implement the recommendations of the Royal Commission.

1996: There have been 96 more Aboriginal deaths in custody since the Royal Commission.

An examination is held to rate the progress of the implementation of the recommendations. It finds every state and territory claimed implementation of Recommendation 161: “Police and prison officers should seek medical attention if any doubt arises as to detainee’s condition”, yet this remained to be a likely cause in many of the deaths.

2001: In 1991, when the Royal Commissions findings were handed down, Aboriginal people were imprisoned at 8 times the rate of non-Aboriginal people. By 2001 this rate had grown to 10 times.

2004: On 19 November, Mulrunji dies in custody at the Palm Island Police Station. Initial police investigations are later described in a Crime and Misconduct Commission report as ‘seriously flawed [and] their integrity gravely compromised’. A week later, Palm residents hear the extent of the massive internal injuries that led to the death. The police station and Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley’s residence are burnt down. Riot police are sent in to round up suspects using excessive force and causing significant trauma on the Palm island community.

2005: Chris Hurley is receives a confidential $100,000 payout from the Queensland Police Service for personal property he lost in the fire. Hurley is transferred to the Gold Coast.

2006: Deputy State Coroner Christine Clements finds that Hurley assaulted Mulrunji and caused his death.

2007: Hurley is tried for manslaughter before an all-white Townsville jury and is acquitted.

2008: 22 police officers receive bravery award for their roles in the “Palm Island riots”. The same year Lex Wotton is sentenced to 7 years jail for his role as “riot instigator.”

There have been 279 Aboriginal Deaths in Custody since 1990.

2009: The coronial investigation is re-opened.

A survey of the Australian Indigenous Law Review showed that the various states had only acted on a fraction of the Royal Commission’s recommendations. Victoria – 27%, NSW 48%, Tasmania 41%, South Australia 52% and Western Australia 50%. The Northern Territory and Australian Capital territory were the most resistant in implementing any changes.

Lex Wotton is freed but is placed under a “gag order” – prohibiting him from speaking to the media or in public about the events of 2004.

2010: Deputy Chief Magistrate Brian Hine agrees that Mulrunji was assaulted by Hurley while finding that the exact cause of death is unknowable because police officers, in their initial investigations, colluded to protect Hurley.

The rate of Aboriginal imprisonment grows to 15 times that of non-Aboriginal people.

2013: The Australian Institute of Criminology found Aboriginal deaths in prison has risen since 2008 although deaths in custody for non-aboriginal people stayed the same.

2014: 10 years after Mulrunji’s death, Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley is questioned in court for “chokeholding” a man who swore at him.

A 22 year old Western Australian woman dies in custody over unpaid parking fines.

2015: To this day no one has served prison time for the death of Mulrunji and Aboriginal deaths in custody continue to rise.

Lex Wotton and his family lead a class action litigation under the Racial Discrimination Act against the State of Queensland for the suffering and cost inflicted on the Palm Island community during and after the police raids.


Australia’s First Peoples are dramatically over-represented in prison statistics. ANTaR is campaigning to change this unacceptable situation and to end Aboriginal deaths in custody.

If you would like to get involved head to the ANTaR website.


Australian Institute of Criminology, 2013, Deaths in Custody

Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2013, Year Book Australia 2012

SBS, The Tall Man – Video Extras – Mulrunji (Video)

Creative Spirits, 2014, Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody

Wikipedia, 2014, Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody

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