Another life lost in WA’s criminal injustice system

A single Facebook post on 7 May, among a sea of local news articles, was the only acknowledgement of a young Indigenous man’s sudden death days earlier in the West Kimberley Regional Prison, near Derby in north-west Western Australia. 

The 19-year-old man reportedly collapsed on the floor of the prison in late afternoon on 3 May. Less than an hour later, he was dead. The jail, which opened in 2012 and is designed specifically for Indigenous prisoners, was described as a “game changer” by the ABC in2014. 

“Suspicious deaths in custody have a long history in Australian prisons. If deaths like this are not acknowledged in Australian news reports, it will only help to create an environment where the lives of prisoners in these remote prisons are devalued”, Change the Record co-chair Damian Griffis told NITV News.

“To deny this young man any mention of his passing is to deny his humanity. 

“The number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander deaths in custody has climbed because governments have failed to prevent the over-imprisonment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Prisons are destroying the lives and futures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, families and communities.” 

Only a few days after the young man’s death, on Sunday, 6 May, horrific footage emerged of Perth police appearing to deliberately run down an 18-year-old Indigenous man in Perth’s southern suburbs. 

William Farmer, who was run over from behind while walking along a road, was knocked to the ground and had a seizure. In a statement, police called the accident a collision; footage of the incident paints a much different picture. 

Prominent human rights lawyer George Newhouse, who is representing Farmer, has called it racial profiling. He told Perth’s Ten Eyewitness News, “It’s not the first time. It seems to be a consistent theme that the WA Police abuse their power when it comes to Aboriginal people in WA”. 

The Australian Law Reform Commission’s 2017 “Pathways to Justice” report found that, between 2006 and 2016, imprisonment of Indigenous Australians increased by 41 percent. 

In Western Australia, a state that retains some of its frontier history, Indigenous children are imprisoned at a rate higher than that of Blacks in the US. 

The Western Australian police are investigating the Derby man’s death and are conducting an internal investigation into the running down of Mr Farmer. 

Yet again, cops investigate themselves.

The Derby man’s case has the tragic echoes of the cases of John Pat, Julieka Dhu, Mr Ward and others who died in police custody. His name will be added to a long list of others whose lives were cut short in the hands of the state.