Questions Remain Around Death Of Young Woman in WA Police Custody


A young woman has died in police custody in Western Australia, provoking fresh concerns about the state’s high rates of Aboriginal incarceration.

Reports indicate that a 22-year-old women died yesterday after being moved from the South Hedland Police Station in the state’s north to a nearby emergency ward.

The morning after the incident, key details about the woman’s identity and the circumstances of her death remain unclear. It is not yet confirmed whether or not she was of Aboriginal descent.

Marc Newhouse, a spokesperson for Deaths in Custody Watch Committee WA, said the incident was particularly distressing given the woman’s young age.

“What’s really concerning is the age of this person. The family must be just reeling about her death, it does raise a lot of questions,” he said.

In 2013 a WA Parliamentary Inquiry heard evidence that the state’s correctional facilities were in a poor state, and that some holding cells were unsafe.

Of particular relevance, the Inquiry heard evidence from the Aboriginal Legal Service WA's South Hedland office that a juvenile had been kicked in the head by police, in an effort to wake him up.

“That sort of treatment is simply unacceptable and shouldn’t be occurring,” Newhouse said. “We do have concerns about the relationship police have [with the community]in South Hedland.”

WA has seen multiple high-profile deaths in custody cases in recent years.

In 2008, an Aboriginal man known as Mr Ward died while being transported from Laverton police station to Kalgoorlie after the van overheated. The incident was followed in 2011 by the death of another man, Mr Phillips.

A 44-year-old Aboriginal woman died in police custody in Broome, in late 2012.

Hedland Health Campus, where the young woman was taken on Monday, declined to comment when asked for details about admission times and the state of the patient when she arrived at the hospital.

WA Police yesterday told the ABC that the woman was taken to the hospital after complaining of feeling unwell and that the police Internal Affairs Unit will investigate the incident.

New Matilda is waiting for a response from WA Police to further questions, and South Hedland Police station did not respond to request for comment.

Newhouse said WA was still struggling with many of the issues raised in the Royal Commission Into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody report, released in 1991, and that previous deaths in custody had occurred after Aboriginal people had been arrested for minor offences.

“What we have in WA is one of the highest rates of incarceration of Aboriginal people", he said.

“There’s a disproportionate number of Aboriginal people that are denied bail compared to other populations.”

In fact, Western Australia holds a global record for Indigenous jailing rates.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.