As an ABC radio news cadet in 1989 I travelled with the Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody to Walgett in northwest NSW in a small twin-engine Cessna. It was so cramped that the Commissioner, the wry and avuncular Hal Wootten QC, had to sit in the co-pilot’s seat and hand out the in‑flight biscuits.
In Walgett we heard the story of Mr Nean, who died at the police station in tragic but unforeseen circumstances. As a child of the stolen generations, Mr Nean had survived Kinchela Boys Home, a horrific place where brutality and the mistreatment of Aboriginal children was a daily event. His life was hard, and it was short. His story has never left me, even as it has been joined by so many others.
In those days, filing to the newsroom involved a stack of silver coins for the public telephone booth and a shouty long distance call to a copytaker, who would bash out the story ... on a typewriter. Thirty years later, working at Guardian Australia in the relative silence of a digital newsroom, I am again reporting on deaths in custody to see how far the nation has come from that ground‑breaking Royal Commission with its 339 recommendations. The short answer is, not very far. The technology is more advanced but in many ways the story is worse.
Ms Dhu was a young Yamatji woman who died while “cutting out” unpaid fines after enduring what a coroner called “unprofessional” and “inhumane” treatment at South Hedland police station in Western Australia. Ms Dhu was dropped when she could not stand up, dragged along the floor and then carried, handcuffed and shackled, to a police van because she could not walk. She had been told she was “faking it” and called a “f*cking junkie”.
Her death was attributed to septicaemia caused by an infection in a rib broken by her violent partner some weeks before. Her family received a $1.1 million ex-gratia payment and a formal apology from the West Australian attorney general and are still considering further legal action. Ms Dhu’s death had us asking, how many Indigenous people had died in custody since the royal commission handed down its final report in 1991.
It was surprisingly hard to find the answer. We asked every state and territory custodial and police jurisdiction. Many said they did not have the time or the resources to dig up the numbers. To get an up-to-date figure, we would have to compile coronial findings as well as track any media reports or press releases from custodial agencies. We would have to monitor social media for reported deaths in custody, because most prison services in Australia will only confirm a death when asked to verify a report. They do not always issue a media statement unprompted.
So, that is what we did. In the digital age, collecting data is time‑consuming but it is not the hardest part: everything is online, somewhere, in some form or other. From May to August 2018, we read every coronial finding about an Indigenous death in custody over the last decade, and followed up cases that are still awaiting inquest. We examined 463 cases, 147 of which concerned a First Nations person.
Our aim was not to provide more statistics, but to share the stories behind those statistics for a digital audience in a way that would cut through the noise and haste of online media. The stories showed a pattern of systemic neglect but, like the stories of Mr Nean and Ms Dhu, they were uniquely devastating, made worse by the fact that they were still happening thirty years later.
An Aboriginal woman with a chronic injury and a tooth abscess was denied pain medication for six weeks after being transferred to Townsville women’s prison in 2010. Her medical records had not arrived with her and, apart from issuing Panadol authorities did not believe she was in need of pain relief. Six weeks after transfer, she took her own life. The coroner said the pain was “a contributing factor in her despair” during her final weeks.
An Aboriginal man suffering a cardiac arrest was made to walk to a guard station to use a portable oxygen unit before an ambulance was called. Another Aboriginal man died of heart disease lying on a concrete bench in a Darwin police watch-house cell. The coroner said he “was treated like a criminal and incarcerated like a criminal; he died in a police cell built to house criminals. In my view, he was entitled to die as a free man.”
These are systemic issues that continue to occur despite countless pages of reports and recommendations. It was important to us to tell the human story as well as the numerical one, and wherever possible make sure First Nations voices were at the forefront, telling their own stories, in their own words. We wanted to make sure people were not compelled to relive their suffering in the hope that it would change a mind or soften a heart.
We were mindful that the retelling can be damaging too. The imagery for Deaths Inside was designed by Wiradjuri artist Charlotte Allingham, whose ethereal, plaintive figures gave the project an intimacy and a cultural resonance. Her delicate images—layers of fine lines, watercolours and chalk—made it possible for us to include the stories of people who had died, without further upsetting the loved ones they had left behind. Charlotte’s work gave the project a visual language and spirit we could not have captured any other way because she creates with the knowledge, as so many contemporary Aboriginal artists do, that even the most painful stories can be told beautifully.
There are also moments when art practice and digital journalism intersect, not to create “political art”, whatever that might be, but to deliberately repurpose the gallery as a space for the kind of reportage sorely missing in the mainstream media coverage of Aboriginal affairs. Vernon Ah Kee’s incendiary 2012 work tall man claims this space by showing (broadcasting) never-before-seen footage of the so-called riot on Palm Island in 2004, in the wake of the brutal death of Mulrunji Doomadgee in the police lockup.
Doomadgee had been detained for swearing at senior sergeant Chris Hurley. An hour and a half later he was found dead from massive internal injuries, broken ribs, a ruptured spleen and a severed liver—injuries the pathologist compared to those sustained by plane crash victims. A week later, tensions on the island erupted at a public reading of the autopsy results.
Ah Kee’s four-channel video installation shows what happened on the day and at court hearings in Townsville. Ah Kee had access to private and mobile-phone footage and CCTV footage from inside the Palm Island police station and compound. It is extraordinarily powerful and distressing work, and offers a crucial perspective that had been lacking in the media’s coverage of Doomadgee’s death in custody.
It is also a rare occasion when we hear Lex Wotton speak, the man who was literally silenced by court order for several years following the riots. Ah Kee’s video work was accompanied by fine pencil portraits of people looking directly at the viewer, including Wotton, his lips parted in an intelligent smile. He seems about to talk. The portraits are honest, unfiltered; these wonderful faces are of people who want you to see them as they really are.
Good digital storytelling ‑ especially storytelling made by First Nations peoples ‑ uses art, not just to reach for peoples’ hearts and minds or to express our righteous anger, but because art can make beautiful the least palatable digital data and give it a lyrical power. We have always done this as First Nations people. To us, storytelling is art, music, dance, history, language, country, family all in one, each part necessary and integrated.
Digital technology makes it possible to tell layered, integrated stories, the way First Nations people like to tell them. It gives us new tools to record old ways: we can illustrate, animate, interact, translate into multiple languages, bring to life archival photographs, create 3D landscapes, use VR, and augment reality. Nevertheless, as First Nations media-makers we have a big responsibility to our communities, to make sure their voices are represented in the way they want to be represented.
That means people using their first languages if they prefer, rather than being forced to use English, or to speak a certain way rather than using their own accents or turn of phrase. And it means First Nations people deciding what stories they want told (how and why) in their own time, not in response to someone else’s agenda or deadline. Dot West is the founder of Goolarri media in Broome and the rightful winner of the lifetime achievement award at the inaugural 2018 First Nations media awards.
Dot said it like this. “It’s the power of the word that resonates with me. Whether it be the power of the word that occurs on stage, whether it occurs on the page, or whether it occurs in your ears through the radio, or whether it’s the power of the word that happens on screen, we have the power to make an impact and we cannot let that power fall to the wayside. “We have got to give it guts. We’ve got to give it earth. We’ve got to give it country. We’ve got to give it culture. We’ve got to give it language. … We’ve got to give it everything, in order to ensure that the power of the word resonates with everyone that lives in this country and elsewhere, about the First Nations peoples of this country.”
Lorena Allam is Indigenous affairs editor at Guardian Australia, and 2018 Walkley award winner for innovation in journalism. For 30 years she has worked as a journalist, broadcaster and manager, at the ABC and in a range of public policy roles. Lorena is a proud descendant of the Yuwalaraay and Gamilaraay first nations.