News & Current Affairs

By Phoebe Tulk


Sentenced to Death

On 26 February 2023, Corrections Officers carrying out routine checks on detainees at the Alexander Maconochie Centre (AMC) happened upon the body of Mr Justin Cordy. A statement issued by the ACT Justice and Community Safety Directorate reported that Mr Cordy died around 1pm in his cell, alone. Mr Cordy, only 34 years old, had been remanded in custody at the AMC the day before he died.

Mr Cordy is another in the slew of deaths that have transpired over the past few years at the AMC.

Only 1 year and 26 days before Mr Cordy’s death, another man remanded in the AMC was found deceased in his cell in similar circumstances. An investigation into his death by the ACT Inspector of Correctional Services established that the risk of self-harm posed by a design flaw in the construction of his cell door was reported to staff of the AMC Facilities Management in 2015. Somehow, every executive with the power to organise the replacement or redesign of those doors, including the AMC General Manager, must have been incredibly preoccupied for the last 7 years.

In 2016, around the 25th anniversary of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (RCIADIC), Indigenous man Mr Steven Freeman died in custody at the AMC. In 1992, the RCIADIC established that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were more likely to die in custody as a consequence of their significant over-representation in custody. As at March 2022, there had been at least 505 deaths of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in custody since the release of the RCIADIC. The majority had not yet even received a sentence.

The hyper-incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is a direct consequence of Australia’s colonial history of racial segregation, mass internment, colonial missions, and pastoral settlements.

Nationally, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are incarcerated at 13 times the rate of individuals who do not identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. Although Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples make up only 3.5% of the population in NSW, they represent 27.5% of prisoners.

In the AMC, the Australian Capital Territory’s only prison, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples comprise 20.9% of the male detainee population and 39% of female detainee population. In relation to solely remand, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples comprise 21% of the male population and 45.8% of the female population. This is despite the 2021 Census estimating that only 2% of the entire population of the Australian Capital Territory identifies as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.

Many Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander peoples are detained in lockup or remanded in custody for minor crimes, including failing to attend a court date, driving without a license, and possessing small amounts of illicit substances.

The most likely official causes for the death of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander peoples in police custody are from injuries related to police motor vehicle pursuits and injuries ensuing from an arrest under the presumption of intoxication. In prison, over half of the deaths are recorded to be from natural causes, a term used to mitigate responsibility of police and corrections staff for deaths in custody.  Sadly, many deaths in custody are suicides.

In a 2018-19 report, the Australian Institute of Criminology calculated that on average in Australia, Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander peoples die in police custody at more than 6 times the rate of non-Indigenous people.

As surmised by Darwin barrister John B. Lawrence SC, increasing incarceration rates, especially of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander peoples, and the subsequent deaths, continues to be blamed on: “inadequate resources, inadequate time, inadequate experience, inadequate training and supervision”.

The Inspector of Correctional Services is reported to be planning an investigation into Mr Cordy’s death. It will not be surprising if a similar design flaw or form of inadequacy again excuses the AMC from making any real change.

As responsible members of the legal community we have to ask ourselves: is this good enough? The answer is a resounding no. The solution is not an easy one, but it starts with forward-thinking politicians who are willing to commit to funding education and treatment programs that, as the research shows time and time again, markedly decreases recidivism rates. This will lead to lower incarceration rates and fewer associated deaths. The reality is that a lot of politicians seem to think these sort of investments would be viewed as being ‘soft on crime’ and unpopular in the electorate.

Sadly, as the old adage goes, there are no votes in jail.