Deaths in custody need independent investigation: UK advocate

Australia needs to follow the UK in having independent investigations of deaths in custody, a British advocate says.

Ms Dhu died at the Hedland Health Campus after three days in custody in the South Hedland lockup
Ms Dhu died at the Hedland Health Campus after three days in custody in the South Hedland lockup

(Image: ABC)

Ben Collins ABC North West WA 10 October, 2014

Deborah Coles is the co-director of Inquest, a charity that supports the families of those who die in custody, and which also lobbies for increased scrutiny.

Unlike Australia where police investigate deaths in custody, Ms Coles says the UK moved to independent investigations in 2004.

"Where somebody dies in police or prison custody, there is an independent investigation carried out by an independent body... Then an inquest is held with a jury presiding over the findings," she told Hilary Smale for North West WA Mornings.

Criticisms of police investigating deaths in their custody have been reignited following the death of Ms Dhu, a 22-year-old Aboriginal woman. Ms Dhu was being held in police custody in the Pilbara's South Hedland lockup. She was taken to Port Hedland Health Campus twice and then returned to custody, reportedly after complaining of illness.

Ms Dhu died at the Port Hedland Health Campus when she was taken there a third time from custody on the 4th August. Police internal affairs are now investigating the circumstances around her death, but Ms Coles said that this process is inappropriate.

"You cannot have any confidence in a system investigating itself. What is so important when you're talking about deaths in custody is that you've got to have properly conducted, independent, open and transparent investigations."

Mandatory action

Independent investigations of deaths in custody is only part of the solution to reducing the problem according to Ms Coles. She is still fighting to make the recommendations from independent investigations in the UK mandatory.

"If recommendations are made, they should be mandatory... Because ultimately these recommendations have come out of someone's death."

Without independent investigations and mandatory recommendations, Ms Coles said Australia will have an ongoing problem with deaths in custody.

"I think it's 30 years since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths and yet, from my understanding from people I've talked to, you're seeing deaths raising the same kind of issues that were raised many, many years ago," she said.

Ms Coles went further, and questioned the value of holding women in prison at all. She said that the vast majority of women are imprisoned for non-violent crimes, and custody often exacerbates their problems without discouraging recidivism.

"Increasingly we are seeing women ending up in a prison system which is very often a kind of dumping ground for the failings in support services for women to deal with addictions or mental health or trauma, and in particular the failure to protect women from violence and abuse."

Ms Dhu was reportedly in custody due to unpaid parking fines. A forensic pathologist found she had fractured ribs and bleeding around her lungs, although she is thought to have died from an apparent heart attack.

WA Police released the following statement:

"The WA Police internal affairs unit are continuing their investigations into this matter on behalf of the state coroner. It is expected the completed internal affairs unit file will be provided to the state coroner by the end of October, 2014."

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