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Guardian Australia’s Indigenous affairs editor Lorena Allam at her home in Sydney
Guardian Australia’s Indigenous affairs editor Lorena Allam at home in Sydney. ‘Our people were very rarely given voice,’ she says. ‘On deaths in custody we were just the nameless, faceless dead.’ Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

The staggering omission that led to Deaths Inside, the tally tracking Indigenous deaths in custody

Guardian Australia’s Indigenous affairs editor Lorena Allam at home in Sydney. ‘Our people were very rarely given voice,’ she says. ‘On deaths in custody we were just the nameless, faceless dead.’ Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

The question was: ‘How many people have died since the 1991 royal commission?’ Nobody knew – so a Guardian Australia team spent eight months trawling through inquests and media reports, striving to highlight human stories behind shocking statistics

In cities across Australia in 2020, as Black Lives Matter protests erupted around the world, the number 432 was everywhere – displayed on banners at rallies and at marches.

“That number didn’t exist before we published Deaths Inside,” says Calla Wahlquist, one of the Guardian Australia journalists behind the massive data-based project.

Black Lives Matter protesters rally in Melbourne in June 2020
Black Lives Matter protesters rally in Melbourne in June 2020. Photograph: Asanka Ratnayake/Getty Images

Eight months in the making, Deaths Inside identified every Indigenous death in Australian custody known to have taken place since the royal commission into these deaths delivered its 1991 report – laying bare how little had changed in the intervening 27 years.

Part of its genesis dates back to August 2014, when a 22-year-old Aboriginal woman named Ms Dhu died in police custody in Western Australia while serving time for unpaid fines.

Ms Dhu
Ms Dhu was 22 when she died in a police cell. This photo was supplied by her family

For four weeks from October 2015 Wahlquist reported on Ms Dhu’s inquest, writing two or three stories a day.

“In the early days of the Guardian, because we knew we couldn’t cover everything, what we did we went all in on,” she says. “By being in court every day, we didn’t allow the story to fade away.”

The then deputy editor of Guardian Australia, Will Woodward, requested a wrap-up piece, suggesting that it include how many people had died since the royal commission.

“I was like, ‘OK, I’ll figure that out,’” Wahlquist says. “And I couldn’t figure it out. Because they didn’t have any data available.”

The Australian Institute of Criminology – the body required to publish reports on deaths in custody – was years behind. States and territories weren’t providing information, and there was a lag in coronial inquests.

So Wahlquist started keeping a list.

When Lorena Allam joined Guardian Australia as Indigenous affairs editor in 2018, greater resources allowed greater ambition.

Calla Wahlquist in Melbourne
Calla Wahlquist in Melbourne. She says an investigation tracking deaths in custody was ‘desperately needed’. Photograph: Ellen Smith/The Guardian

Allam wanted to cover Indigenous affairs in a new way. “Our issues were just being absolutely bulldozed in the mainstream media,” she says. “When they were reported, they were reported by white people from the white perspective. Our people were very rarely given voice.

“On deaths in custody we were just the nameless, faceless dead … there was no interest and yet it just ground on and on.”

A Guardian investigation tracking the deaths “was everyone’s idea”, Wahlquist says, “because it was so desperately needed”.

Editor Lenore Taylor gave them the green light – but a huge amount of work was required.

Data and interactives editor Nick Evershed came onboard, along with intern Jack Banister and a freelance researcher, Miles Herbert. The team spent days, nights and weekends trawling through more than 450 coronial inquests.

“Every inquest was read by two people,” Allam says. Some information wasn’t on websites, or didn’t clarify if the deceased was Indigenous – leading to more calls.

Nick Evershed at home in Sydney
Data and interactives editor Nick Evershed at home in Sydney: ‘It was the most research that we’ve ever done on a project.’ Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

“[Coroners and custodial services] would use terms like ‘natural causes’ when we would say their physical health deteriorated rapidly when entering custody because they were given substandard medical care,” Allam says.

For the data team, it ended up being one of the biggest projects in Guardian Australia’s history. “It was the most research that we’ve ever done on a project – every square is a story, case inquest, media report that one of us had to read,” Evershed says.

“It made it possible to say a lot more about deaths in custody in Australia than had ever been done since the royal commission. It allowed us to say things like procedures weren’t followed for Indigenous people in custody more often than for non-Indigenous people.”

The team soon realised the sheer volume of deaths made it impossible to reach every family. They only used names with express permission, and silhouettes on tiled squares representing lives lost.

For Allam, the biggest decision was how to report these stories in a way that didn’t further upset families after painful inquests.

“For families to sit in a room and have your daughter or your son or your nephew discussed in such cold ways … you’re a voiceless family member in that process,” she says.

Allam speaks from experience. She has a cousin in Deaths Inside, and attended the inquest into his death with his grandmother. “It was very, very important to make sure that we connected the numbers to people,” she says.

And families reached out. “It was confronting, it was saddening for them,” she says. “But we ended up having people contacting us and saying, ‘You don’t have my son, he should be in there.’ They wanted their loved ones counted.”

‘Time to stop the rot': Pat Dodson gives fiery speech about Indigenous deaths in custody – video

She says Deaths Inside and Black Lives Matter have changed how media report deaths in custody: “One thing I noticed afterwards was how many more journalists were turning up to inquests than there used to be.”

Wahlquist says the database has become a resource for lawyers researching deaths, and has led to improvements in real-time reporting.

Ms Dhu’s death was attributed to septicemia caused by an infection in a rib broken by her violent partner some weeks before. The coroner found she died of “natural causes” – a term that, to Wahlquist, denotes peace and denies accountability.

In Deaths Inside, her death was attributed to medical issues after assault. At the bottom of her card it reads: “issues raised, medical care required, but not all given, procedures not all followed, force used”.

“Measuring impact for some stories is easier than others, because some stories have an easy fix,” Evershed says.

“This situation is long-running, caused by a huge amount of factors interplayed between state law, territory law, disadvantage … it’s so complex to look at but this was, in many ways, the basic level of reporting.

“Putting it on the record and saying, ‘Yes, this many deaths, these people died in these circumstances.’ It wasn’t all there before. And now it is.”

The number now stands at 540. The database will be updated again this year.

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