Australian Institute of Criminology

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Natural causes responsible for many deaths in custody

Media Release

15 December 2010

Many people who die in custody do so from natural causes, according to the 2008 Deaths in Custody in Australia report released today by the Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC). This is in contrast to the 1980s and 1990s when the common type of death in custody was younger men dying from self-inflicted injuries such as hanging.

The report provides an analysis of data captured nationally through the National Deaths in Custody Program (NDICP), which was established in 1992 in response to recommendations from the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.  

Research manager, Laura Beacroft, said the report found 86 deaths occurred in prison and police custody in 2008, an increase of 12 deaths from the 74 deaths in 2007, but much lower than the numbers in the 1980s and 1990s. No deaths occurred in juvenile justice centres in 2008.

“Overall deaths in custody have been decreasing since 2000. The slight increase in the numbers of deaths since 2006 are associated with the ageing prison population and resulting health issues such as cancer and heart attacks – 70% of prison deaths were due to natural causes, and 47% of all deaths in custody were due to natural causes.” Ms Beacroft said.

She said the long-term trends for Indigenous and non-Indigenous deaths in custody have both been decreasing over the past decade.  

“So Indigenous people are not more likely to die in custody. The problem lies in the over-representation of Indigenous persons entering custody – Indigenous people comprise less than 2.5 percent of the total Australian population yet account for over a quarter (28%) of young people in juvenile detention, one-third (33%) of people involved in police custody incidents and almost one-quarter (24%) of the total prison population.

These figures underscore the need for continued efforts to ‘close the gap’ in adverse Indigenous contact with the criminal justice system and improving rehabilitation to reduce recidivism.”

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AIC media contact: Janet Millar Telephone: 02 6260 9244; Mobile: 0418 159 525