Thursday, April 15, 2010

Is prison good for blacks?

The heading I have used above will undoubtedly enrage some but the evidence given below by David Biles supports it. David Biles is a consultant criminologist and was head of research with the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody

Biles has written the article below to put into context a scandalous case in which a cop killed a black in his custody

RECENT media coverage of the legal proceedings relating to the death of Cameron (also known as Mulrunji) Doomadgee at the Palm Island police station in November 2004 has inevitably raised a number of questions about the phenomena of deaths in custody in general.

This case and several others that have been mentioned recently might have caused us to believe that deaths in custody were continuing to occur at a similar rate to that established by the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, which sat from late 1987 to early 1991 and examined 99 cases that occurred between 1980 and 1989. During that decade data were collected on non-Aboriginal as well as Aboriginal deaths that occurred in police custody and in Australian prisons, even though the former were not subjected to close scrutiny.

This preliminary data collection exercise found quite unexpectedly that Aboriginal people in both police custody and in prison were no more likely to die than non-Aboriginal people in either form of custody.

That finding prompted some heated discussion among the royal commission staff, because it indicated that the basic assumption underlying the establishment of the royal commission was misconceived.

Some staff members suggested that what was needed was either an investigation of all deaths in custody, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, or the focus of the inquiry should be the over-representation of Aboriginal people in both forms of custody.

The fact that neither of these options was considered was a disappointment to some staff members, but towards the end of the inquiry there was greater emphasis placed on the reasons why so many Aboriginal people were behind bars in the first place. Another cause of criticism of the royal commission was the fact that even though many police and prison officers were found to be at fault in performing their duties, none of their shortcomings was found to be sufficiently serious to justify the laying of criminal charges.

That fact alone places the Doomadgee case in a different category as the senior sergeant-in-charge of the Palm Island police station, Chris Hurley, was subsequently charged with manslaughter and acquitted by a Supreme Court jury in Townsville in June 2007.

That may not be the end of the matter, however, as it is assumed by many people close to the case that Hurley may at some stage face a civil charge, where the standard of proof will be on the balance of probability rather than beyond reasonable doubt as is required in criminal cases.

A further criticism of the royal commission was the fact that in its detailed examination of the 99 cases it never gave serious consideration to the possibility that at least some of the cases of apparent suicide by hanging could have been accidental deaths due to the practice known as sexual asphyxia.

It is possible that some of the legal staff, as well as some of the commissioners, had no knowledge of this subject, or if they did they may have taken the view, quite reasonably, that any public mention of this behaviour may have encouraged others to imitate it. One can only speculate that either ignorance, prudence or coyness prevented this subject from even being considered.

The royal commission cost more than $40 million, and a further $400 million to implement most of its recommendations.

It was the subject of intense media interest, both internationally and nationally, while its hearings were being held, but many of its general findings were never fully understood by the public, or by many practitioners working in criminal justice.

This may have been due to the fact that its reports were nearly always very long, to the point that it is doubtful if any individual can honestly claim to have read every word that the royal commission published.

For example, another of the unexpected findings of the research undertaken by the royal commission was the fact that convicted offenders serving non-custodial sentences such as probation, community service orders or parole were much more likely to die while serving those orders than were offenders serving prison sentences.

In other words, imprisonment actually reduces the probability of death.

This should not be particularly surprising when one considers the high-risk lifestyle lived by many of those involved in crime.

The risks include taking too many drugs, drinking too much alcohol, smoking too much, driving too fast and generally living a chaotic life.

For all its negative features, prison does at least provide three meals a day, and reduces (even if it does not entirely eliminate) the consumption of drugs.

It also provides basic medical care and some degree of social support.

For a host of economic and humanitarian reasons, the aim must always be to keep the number of people in prison to an absolute minimum so that it is only used as a last resort, but the consequences of imprisonment are not always totally negative.

What has happened to deaths in custody since the conclusion of the royal commission? The answer is a mixed one.

Deaths in police custody have reduced significantly, while the opposite has been the case with prisons.

The improvement in the police custody deaths is almost certainly due to police forces across Australia taking the job of looking after Aboriginal detainees more seriously (by, for example, encouraging Aboriginal elders to stay with detainees) and, perhaps more importantly, making an effort to get Aboriginal detainees out on bail or transferred to prison as soon as possible.

On the prison side of the equation, there has been a massive increase in both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal deaths and this is totally the result of a similar increase in prison numbers that has occurred in the last 20 years. Over that period the total daily average number of prisoners in Australia has more than doubled from fewer than 14,000 in 1990 to very nearly 29,000 today.

Also, to our national shame, Aboriginal adults who comprise almost exactly 2 per cent of the total adult population now make up over 25 per cent of our prison population.

It is still the case, however, that non-Aboriginal prisoners are more likely to die than Aboriginal prisoners.


Docs evade regulators to save babies

AFTER saving 'Baby Z' with one of the biggest longshots in medical history, Melbourne doctors have secretly saved more newborns around the world who had no hope of survival.

In a story more like a Hollywood script than a medical journal - and with an extremely experimental drug not yet approved by any drug agency in the world - neonatologist Dr Alex Veldman and biochemist Dr Rob Gianello have saved babies in the UK, Germany, and The Netherlands.

Their global breakthroughs come after the pair were left with no option but to treat a Melbourne girl dubbed Baby Z with an unproved drug only ever tested on a small sample of German mice, or watch her die.

Remarkably it worked, and Baby Z became the only person to ever survive molybdenum cofactor deficiency - a one-in-1 million metabolic condition that poisons the brain and kills within months of birth.

When the Herald Sun broke news of her survival last November, the story made headlines around the world, leading to a flood of calls to Monash Medical Centre from overseas.

Although work to gain approval for the drug cPMP is still in its early days, Dr Veldman has been able to use the drug globally under emergency access regulations.

"They all wake up and start to feed and look around and recover, they all stop seizures," Dr Veldman said. "One after the other they are repeating the pattern."

Working with the drug's inventor, German plant biologist Prof Gunther Schwarz, the Monash team has saved 'Baby P' in Germany in November 2009; 'Baby O' in the UK in December 2009; 'Baby M' in March 2010; and this month has saved 'Baby C' in The Netherlands.


Man in intensive care after being restrained by police in Townsville hospital

No prizes for guessing that they put him in a choke hold and kept him there

A MAN is in intensive care after police attempts to restrain him in a Townsville health facility.

Police say the 27-year-old Mundingburra man became agitated and aggressive towards staff at a Townsville health facility after voluntarily arriving there around 3pm yesterday.

Health staff and security guards attempted to restrain the man and called police to assist.

The man stopped breathing shortly after he was restrained and sedated by officers.

He was resuscitated and taken to the Emergency Unit at Townsville Hospital before being transferred to intensive care, where he remains.

Officers from police Ethical Standard Command are investigating the police involvement in the incident.


'Labor elite out of touch' on population growth

A new survey has shed more light on how Australian voters would respond if population growth became a big election issue.

The survey by the Australian National University is the largest recent study of social attitudes to population growth and shows that nearly 70 per cent of respondents do not believe Australia needs more people.

The Australian Survey of Social Attitudes was restricted to voters, and 3,124 people completed the mail-out questionnaire.

They were asked "Do you think Australia needs more people?" and 69 per cent said no.

Dr Katharine Betts, Adjunct Associate Professor of Sociology at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, has written a report on the findings. She says those who voted 'no' were worried about local jobs, urban congestion and the environment.

"I think it's clear from this data that the growth train steaming ahead has a lot of unhappy passengers, and I think it's pretty clear that there's a large swathe of voters out here who would really like the train driver to put on the brakes," she said.

"We were rather surprised that the top pick there was the reason 'We should train our own skilled people not take them from other countries'. Twenty-four per cent of people chose that as either their first or second reason."

The 31 per cent of respondents happy with population growth were asked what sort of growth they would prefer, and 23 per cent chose immigration.

"With the people who favoured growth, they tended to pick economic reasons, having more babies and more migrants could counteract the ageing of the population, we need skilled migrants for the workforce - that accounted for nearly three-quarters of the responses amongst the pro-growth people," Dr Betts said.

The survey was completed in the three months to February. Its findings are in contrast to the much smaller Lowy Poll released last week which found most people want a bigger Australia but do not want the population to reach the predicted 36 million by 2050.

Dr Betts says in this latest study, the state most unhappy about population growth was Queensland.

"Seventy-three per cent of Queenslanders thought Australia didn't need more people but the ACT was quite unlike the other states, and 50 per cent of people in the ACT wanted more people," she said.

Dr Betts says she thinks the results show there is widespread opposition to the idea of a "big Australia", but that opposition does not yet have a political focus.

"There is this new party being formed, the Stable Population Party of Australia; we don't know what the Opposition is going to do, they've been talking about a rather smaller migrant intake and perhaps they'll pursue that line," she said.

"But I think it does show that [Prime Minister Kevin] Rudd and the Labor political elite are very much out of touch with Australian voters on this particular question."

The survey results will be published in the quarterly journal People and Place.


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