Aboriginal timeline: Prison

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1982

  1. Death of Joe Pat in Roebourne gaol (WA). The first death in custody to be widely protested ultimately leads to the setting up of the Muirhead enquiry.

1987

  1. A Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody begins in response to high rate of Aboriginal incarceration and deaths.

1988

  1. Justice Muirhead presents interim report on Black Deaths in Custody.

1991

  1. The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody presents its ‘Report and Recommendations’ to the federal government. It finds that of the 99 deaths it investigated, 43 were of people who were separated from their families as children.

1996

  1. Northern Territory and Western Australia pass mandatory sentencing laws which affect particularly Aboriginal youths.

1999

  1. Mandatory sentencing in Western Australia and the Northern Territory becomes a national issue. Many call for these laws to be overturned because they have greater impact on Indigenous children than on non-Indigenous children.

2001

  1. The Northern Territory overturns its mandatory sentencing laws.

2004

  1. Mulrunji Doomadgee dies in a police watch house on Palm Island, 70 km north of Townsville in north Queensland. His death sparks violent riots during which the police station and officers’ quarters are burnt down. Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley is found guilty of causing Mulrunji’s death, but in late 2006 Queensland’s Director of Public Prosecutions, Leanne Clare, opts not to prosecute him. In February 2007 the Premier Peter Beattie orders a judicial review of the case and Hurley is charged with manslaughter, the first time ever in Queensland
    that a police officer is charged over the death of an Aboriginal person. In June 2007 an all-white jury finds him not guilty. Hurley returns to work after having been suspended on full pay. An Aboriginal man, Lex Wotton, was found guilty on 24 October 2008 of “rioting with destruction” and sentenced to six years in prison.

2007

  1. The High Court rejects legislation passed by the Howard government which denied all prisoners the right to vote. This law was challenged by Vickie Roach, an Aboriginal prisoner in Melbourne. But the Court upheld the validity of the law providing that prisoners serving a sentence of three years or longer are not
    entitled to vote.

2008

  1. Ngaanyatjarra Elder Mr Ward dies in the back of a prison van because the two officers failed to give him water and offer him breaks while driving 320km through 42-degree heat in Western Australia. Deaths in custody

2010

  1. The West Australian government approves $3.2 million, one of the largest ex-gratia (voluntary) payments ever made in Australia to the family of an Aboriginal Elder who died of heatstroke in the back of a prison van in 2008. Aboriginal deaths in custody

2012

  1. The NSW Governor launches the Justice Reinvestment Campaign which aims to spend more money on prevention and early intervention than imprisonment.

2014

  1. Amendments to the Police Administration Act (NT) commence which provide for ‘paperless arrests’, allowing the police, without a warrant, to detain a person in custody for up to 4 hours, or longer if the person is intoxicated. The laws are believed to disproportionally affect Aboriginal people.

2016

  1. ABC’s Four Corners broadcasts Australia’s Shame, a documentary on abuse of children in NT detention centres, sparking shock nationally and internationally. Within a day the Prime Minister forms the Royal Commission into the Child Protection and Youth Detention Systems of the Northern Territory.

  2. Amnesty International Australia reveals documents alleging abuse of Aboriginal youth in QLD detention centres at Townsville’s Cleveland Youth Detention Centre and Brisbane Youth Detention Centre from 2010 to 2015. Guards stripped children, used dogs to intimidate, used excessive force, put children for prolonged periods into isolation and used search techniques banned in adult prisons.

2018

  1. Western Australia establishes the Custody Notification Service, 27 years after it was recommended by the Royal Commission Into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

2019

  1. The Northern Territory introduces the Custody Notification Service (CNS) that obliges police to contact the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency after taking an Aboriginal person into custody. The NT government had announced the introduction in 2016.

  2. Victoria introduces the Custody Notification Service (CNS) that obliges police to contact the Aboriginal Legal Service after taking an Aboriginal person into custody. Western Australia follows one day later.

2020

  1. The Australian High Court rules that Aboriginal people cannot be deported even though the two men in the court's case were born overseas, only had permanent residency and never applied for Australian citizenship. The government wanted to deport them because both were convicted of crimes.

    The court found that Aboriginal people have a special cultural, historic and spiritual connection to Australia which is inconsistent with them being considered "aliens" in the meaning of the Australian constitution.

  2. The Western Australian parliament passes a bill to end the controversial imprisonment of people for unpaid fines. Previously a person unwilling or unable to pay their fine could be arrested and made to pay it off by serving time in prison. A disproportionate number of Aboriginal people fell victim to this policy.

Harvard citation

Korff, J 2020, Aboriginal timeline: Prison, <https://creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/history/australian-aboriginal-history-timeline/prison>, retrieved 30 October 2020

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