‘Left like a dog, to die’

They laughed as she died, the inquest heard. They said she was lying, that she was carrying on “like a two-year-old child”.

Ms Dhu was in police custody when she breathed for the last time. Her partner, Dion Ruffin, was in the cell beside hers. He heard her moaning, chocking on vomit, struggling to breathe. It went on for three days.

Ruffin said that in her last moments in the cell he heard a thump of some kind. Then nothing. “I heard this loud bang and [her] cry for help ended.”

Ms Dhu was 22. She was held at Western Australia’s South Hedland police station because she had failed to pay fines. She was Aboriginal.

Closed-circuit television footage played at the inquest into her death this week showed police attempting to lift her from the bed in her cell. She falls back, lifeless. A female officer holds open the door of Ms Dhu’s cell while another officer drags her from the room by her hands, her body trailing on the floor.  

The inquest heard police thought Ms Dhu “was faking it”. She pleaded to go to hospital, showed her bluish hands, but police “felt the transfer was not urgent”. The shift supervisor noted Ms Dhu “appears to be suffering withdrawals from drug use and is not coping well with being in custody”.

Police carried Ms Dhu “like a dead kangaroo” to the back of a LandCruiser. They held her by her arms and legs, her body hanging between them in a slack arc. No one sat beside her. No one comforted her. She moaned again as the car’s door slammed. A tape records the voice of a male officer: “Oh, shut up.”

Ms Dhu’s father has already testified at the inquest. His pain is raw. “They shouldn’t have treated anyone like that. They left her there like a dog, to die.”

Ms Dhu died of pneumonia, septicaemia and complications from a rib fracture. A simple X-ray would have diagnosed this. She was never given one.

Ms Dhu should not have died. She should never have been locked up for failing to pay fines. She should never have had her cries ignored, her health so overlooked. She should never have been mistrusted, mocked, forgotten.

Two decades have passed since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. Still not enough has changed. Still not all of its recommendations have been implemented.

The incarceration of Indigenous people remains wildly disproportionate. Indigenous people are still locked up on trivial matters, dealt with by a legal system that would never treat a white Australian the same way. They are hounded with paperless arrests and inconsequential charges, fed into a machine that has no care for them, that is witless in punishment.

The numbers are obscene, but they are bloodless. For two decades the system has been unmoved by them. The status quo becomes an excuse.

Much is known and much doesn’t change. But it must. Ms Dhu died without dignity or reason. She died because a system didn’t care enough to make sure she would live.

She was 22. She was Aboriginal. She had not paid her fines. These were her only crimes. As a result of them, we let her die.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 28, 2015 as "‘Left like a dog, to die’".

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