Governments must do more to prevent Indigenous deaths in custody

16 April 2021

The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists (RANZCP) has welcomed the release of the NSW Parliament’s Select Committee’s Report On the High Level of First Nations People in Custody and Oversight and Review of Deaths in Custody.

The release of the report coincides with the 30-year anniversary of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, which handed down 339 recommendations to stop First Nations peoples losing their lives in the care of the state.

Chair of the News South Wales Branch of the RANZCP, Dr Angelo Virgona, said that whilst the report is welcome, we need real, meaningful action to reduce the disgraceful rates death of First Nations People in custody.

‘There have been numerous studies and published reports highlighting the significant correlations between imprisonment and severe mental illness and distress’, Dr Virgona added.

‘And the problems with providing mental health services to those in custody are significant.

‘What we need is to ensure that mental healthcare in correctional facilities is equivalent to that in the community in line with international principles and the need to end enforced care.

‘Of particular significance to First Nations people is that they take a different view of mental health.

‘There are already significant shortfalls in the traditional psychiatric approach to mental illness in custody and these difficulties are far greater for a cohort of people for whom the model does not adequately understand or speak to their experience

‘There is also a serious resource shortfall in funding that has been particularly exacerbated in NSW by increased prison numbers over the last few years.

The RANZCP further added that the only way forward and prevent the deaths of First Nations people in custody is to reduce the number of First Nations people going into prison in the first place.

‘This means making the right investments at the community level that focuses on prevention and addressing social determinants such as poverty and entrenched racism’, explained Dr Virgona.

‘While many of those recommendations rely on making better use of existing resources and implementing significant cultural change across all parts of the health and justice systems, others do not.

‘There will need to be significant ongoing investment by government in general to address the social determinants of mental illness and incarceration, as well as additional specific funding for additional resources such as training and recruiting First Nation Health professionals.

‘There is no shortage of solutions. They have been proposed in countless reports and inquiries including this one.

‘A collective effort is needed from our health, community, education and justice systems to divert people who have adverse contact with the justice system.

‘We welcome the release of this report and strongly encourage the NSW Government, and other governments, not to shy away from making the decisions necessary to prevent these tragedies.

For all other expert mental health information, visit Your Health in Mind, the RANZCP’s consumer health information website.

ENQUIRIES: For more information, or to arrange an interview call Sarah Carr on +61 437 315 911, or email