It’s now been 31 years since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody report was published by the Australian Human Rights Commission. The Royal Commission investigated the deaths of 99 First Nations people who died in custody between 1980 and 1989, in response to growing pressure from First Nations individuals and organisations.

This landmark report handed down the devastating finding: First Nations people were more likely to die in custody because they were more likely to be in custody. 31 years on from the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody report, and this still rings true:

    • First Nations people make up 3% of the Australian population, but 29% of the adult prison population
    • First Nations adults are 15 times more likely to be incarcerated than non-First Nations adults
    • First Nations youth are 26 times more likely to be incarcerated than non-First Nations young people
    • First Nations women are imprisoned at 21 times the rate of the non-Indigenous female population
    • First Nations people make up 84% of the prisoner population in the Northern Territory

    What have we learned from the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody report?

    31 years on...

    most of the 339 recommendations made to address First Nations deaths in custody have not been implemented.

    31 years on...

    at least 517 First Nations people have died in custody.

    31 years on...

    First Nations people in Australia are the most incarcerated people on the planet.

    But why are First Nations people more likely to be in prison? It’s clear the ongoing impacts of colonisation and consequences of past government policies influence the high incarceration rates of First Nations people. These include poor health, inadequate housing, low employment and education, and intergenerational trauma.

    First Nations communities also tend to experience higher police presence and feel the effects of systemic racism in the justice system. At the time of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, 14% of the prisoner population was First Nations. This overrepresentation was considered unconscionable and the greatest issue leading to the high numbers of deaths in custody.

    Reducing this overrepresentation was the single most important recommendation to come out of the Royal Commission. But 30 years on, instead of decreasing this overrepresentation it has doubled to 29%.

    In the Uluru Statement From the Heart, we hear these profound words 

    Proportionally, we are the most incarcerated people on the planet. We are not an innately criminal people. Our children are aliened from their families at unprecedented rates. This cannot be because we have no love for them. And our youth languish in detention in obscene numbers. They should be our hope for the future. 

    These dimensions of our crisis tell plainly the structural nature of our problem. This is the torment of our powerlessness. We seek constitutional reforms to empower our people and take a rightful place in our own country. When we have power over our destiny our children will flourish. They will walk in two worlds and their culture will be a gift to their country.”

    At Children’s Ground, we know that prevention is the solution. We are working with First Nations children upstream, using a strengths-based, whole of community approach to prevent entry into the criminal justice system. We are: 

    • investing in social and emotional wellbeing 
    • creating employment pathways for young people 
    • delivering First Nations-led education
    • addressing systemic racism 

    31 years on from the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, what can you do?  

    Use this interactive database to learn about the (at least) 517 deaths in custody that have occurred since the release of the 1991 Royal Commission report.


    Make a recurring donation to Children’s Ground so we can continue working with First Nations children upstream, using a strengths-based, whole of community approach to prevent incarceration. 


    Use Change the Record‘s email template to write to your local MP, encouraging them to push for implementation of the Royal Commission recommendations and keep First Nations adults and children out of prison.


    Support the Dhadjowa Foundation which provides strategic, culturally appropriate support for First Nations families whose loved ones have died in custody. 


    Share the below tiles on your social media platforms to encourage awareness and support for change

    Children’s Ground is a First Nations Organisation led by First Nations Communities in Australia

    From infants to Elders, we work with entire communities over a 25-year period to make real and lasting change. From learning and wellbeing to community development, cultural development and systemic change, Children’s Ground is an evidenced-based approach, designed with First Nations leaders to achieve radical reform.

    Donors sustain our work. Donate to Children’s Ground today or check out our books in First languages.