First Nations human rights campaigner Ray Jackson shone a light on deaths in custody for 30 years

Inga Ting Sydney Morning Herald 28 April 2014

On April 23, an Aboriginal man who dedicated his life to fighting against the deaths of his people in Australian police and prison cells succumbed quietly to his own death in his small flat in Waterloo.

Ray Jackson, a Wiradjuri warrior for human rights, was one of Australia's most vocal and knowledgeable deaths-in-custody campaigners. A fighter for Koori justice – or "fkj", as he always signed his weekly emails – Jackson spent nearly 30 years holding our police, prison and court systems to account every time a "blackfella" died in custody.

Jackson never allowed his rage to subside nor his compassion to diminish – a remarkable feat for someone whose life was filled with stories of violent death.

When funding for the Aboriginal Deaths in Custody Watch Committee, for whom Jackson had worked since 1987, was cut in 1997 – the worst year on record for deaths in prison custody – Jackson moved the entire operation into his one-bedroom flat and founded the Indigenous Social Justice Association to continue its work. The French government awarded Jackson and ISJA a human rights medal in 2013.

I first met Ray Jackson in 2010, during the final year of my journalism masters, while I was investigating deaths in NSW prisons. I went to his flat, high up in one of the so-called "suicide towers" of Waterloo. It was an airless rabbit warren of a building with tiny windows, concrete walls and worn, musty carpets. I had never been to such a place before.

Exiting the lift, I walked the narrow corridor, counting the doors. I needn't have. Jackson's door was marked with a rally poster, demanding justice for the 2004 death of 17-year-old TJ Hickey, killed during a police chase just two blocks away.

The walls of Jackson's living room were lined with lever-arch folders, each neatly labelled: juvenile justice, alcohol and drugs, police, prisons and so on. No wall was free of shelves. No shelf was bare. The cramped space, shrunk further by this incredible collection of material, was like the embodiment of his mind and the decades of knowledge he had acquired.

In the five years since that first meeting, Jackson never failed to respond to an email or return a phone call. Each time we spoke or wrote, I marvelled at his resilience, his passion and his tenacity. Our last conversation was in November last year. He put me in touch with Marcia Mason-Hoskins, the sister of Mark Mason, an Aboriginal man shot dead by police at Collarenebri in NSW in 2010.

It is one of the more abhorrent aspects of the history of black deaths in custody that some of the families Jackson fought alongside were touched by more than one death. Hickey, killed in 2004, was the cousin of Mason, shot six years later. Eddie Russell, found dead in his cell at Long Bay prison in 1999, was the cousin of Eddie Murray, found hanging in a Wee Waa police lockup in 1981. Kwementyaye Briscoe, who died in an Alice Springs police cell in 2012, was the nephew of Douglas Scott, who was found hanged by a twisted sheet in a Darwin jail cell in 1987.

Jackson waged war against all deaths in custody, not just those of his people. It is a great cruelty that this man who did so much for Aboriginal families was never able to find his own family. A member of the stolen generations, Jackson was taken from his mother at the age of two. He never even knew his own name.

This fighter for Koori justice shone a light in the darkest corners of our society. A tireless campaigner, he attended dozens of death scenes and represented numerous families in their dealings with the police, prisons and courts. Jackson never allowed his rage to subside nor his compassion to diminish – a remarkable feat for someone whose life was filled with stories of violent death. He reminded us that we cannot simply sweep something under the carpet because it is ugly or difficult or it happened long ago. He showed us that as tired as we may be of repeating what seems to be the same story with different names, it is a story worth telling. Remembering is, in itself, an act of defiance and Jackson, with his meticulous folders and persistent emails, continued to tell the story of his dead brothers and sisters until the day he died.

Jackson often lamented that nothing ever changed when it came to black deaths in custody. But to say nothing changed in the 30 years that Jackson dedicated to preventing those deaths is to commit a grave disservice to his life's work. Nearly 2000 people, including more than 350 Aboriginal Australians, have died in prison or police custody since 1987. That number would be far greater were it not for Jackson.

A memorial for Ray Jackson will be held on Friday, May 1, at 11am at the Redfern Community Centre on Hugo Street. It will be followed by a march to Belmore Park to protest the closure of Aboriginal homelands, the latest issue for which he campaigned.