Prayer for the 'serious justice issue' of Indigenous deaths in custody

Uncle Ray Minniecon commissions the Scarred Tree mob

Aboriginal Christian leader and pastor Uncle Ray Minniecon has called on the ‘Scarred Tree mob’ – those who are part of the Indigenous ministry run out of St John’s Anglican Church in Glebe, Sydney – to write out prayers for the pressing issues of our present day and share them with others.

“Each Sunday evening, a group of us get together to challenge each other to be more real about our faith on our ‘Message Stick’ online service. This season we are challenging ourselves to pray about difficult justice issues,” Uncle Ray explained.

“Our first issue I asked us to write a prayer about was the serious crime of Aboriginal deaths in custody.”

One of the mob, Stevie Lujan, responded to Uncle Ray’s call with a strong prayer entitled ‘Deaths in custody: a prayer of lament and discontent’. Stevie says it was written “to awaken myself and those of us living 30 years on from the Royal Commission of Aboriginal deaths in custody”.

The prayer is especially striking because it makes reference to specific cases of Indigenous deaths in custody.

Stevie is not an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person himself. Instead he “was born and raised on the unceded lands of Maui, Hawaii, as a welcomed guest and is “a mix race Native American/ German/ Irish/ Mexican man” who has lived in Australia for 18 years.

“Uncle Ray is the epitome of humility and courage,” Stevie told Eternity. “And I am beyond privileged that he has taken me into his mob. He teaches me (and countless others) what it looks like to grieve with those who are hurting, to fight for those who are forgotten and to relentlessly lean into hope.”

“Stevie poured his soul in his prayer. It is such a powerful prayer,” Uncle Ray said.

The prayer is especially striking because it makes reference to specific cases of Indigenous deaths in custody.

Just one example is that of 36-year-old Nathan Reynolds – a First Nations man of Anaiwan and Dunghutti heritage who died on September 1, 2018, at the Outer Metropolitan Multi Purpose Correctional Centre, Berkshire Park in New South Wales (NSW), after suffering an acute asthma attack.

Jesus among the forgotten, we see you in that cell. We hear you cry out for help, wheezing with asthma, struggling for breath,” Stevie has written, in words that echo those in Deputy State Coroner Magistrate Elizabeth Ryan’s report, published in March 2021, following an inquest into Nathan’s death.

“He was in a panic, couldn’t exhale. He was a man begging for help with his eyes and he couldn’t say a word …What little breath he had was just gasping for help,” Aaron Robinson, another inmate testified at the inquest.

We speak to the dry bones of our criminal ‘justice’ system and say: Stand and be held to account …” – Stevie Lujan

The report is a harrowing read that chronicles a litany of failures by NSW corrective services – both systemic and due to the actions of individuals.

“He had a history of severe asthma and he suffered an acute asthma attack on the night of 31 August 2018. By the time Corrective Services officers attended Nathan, his condition had rapidly deteriorated. Tragically, ambulance paramedics could not save him and he was pronounced deceased,” Justice Ryan begins – then comes her scathing assessment.

“Nathan’s medical crisis on the night of 31 August required an emergency response. But the response he received fell well short of this. It was confused, uncoordinated and unreasonably delayed. The delay deprived Nathan of at least some chance of surviving his acute asthma attack. These failures were due both to numerous system deficiencies, and to individual errors of judgement,” she writes.

“But the failures in Nathan’s care went beyond what happened that night. In critical ways, the health care he had received since entering custody was inadequate. It failed to reduce his risk for a fatal asthma attack. It did not comply with established treatment for the management of severe asthma. It did not even comply with NSW Health’s own policies to prevent chronically ill prisoners from deterioration and death. These failings significantly increased Nathan’s risk for the fatal attack which took his life on the night of 31 August.”

The issue of Indigenous deaths in custody is gaining increasing national attention in Australia. It was highlighted just last month on the 30th anniversary of the Royal Commission into Indigenous Deaths in Custody (RCIADIC) handing down its historic 339 recommendations – many of which are still yet to be implemented.

“We speak to the dry bones of our criminal ‘justice’ system and say: Stand and be held to account, Stand and be judged, Stand and be condemned. Die … so you might be revived,” Stevie writes in his prayer.

“Let the song of this land and it’s people reach you as incense. Today, here, now. How long till you respond to that song? How long till you loose the chains and swing wide the prison doors? How long till you spring them loose? How long must they plead? We know you haven’t forgotten them. We know you haven’t forsaken them.”

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are currently the most incarcerated people group on record.

At present in Australia, Indigenous people are placed in police and prison custody at a far higher rate than non-Indigenous people. In fact, while Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples only make up 3 per cent of Australia’s total population, they make up 28 per cent of the nation’s total prison population. This makes them currently the most incarcerated people group on record (noting, of course, that some persecuted people groups are not ‘on record’).

So, while Indigenous deaths in prison make up 18 per cent of the total deaths in prison custody, and around 20 per cent of deaths in police custody, Indigenous people’s over-representation in custody, makes them also over-represented in deaths in custody.

In addition, as seen in Nathan Reynold’s case and others, Australia’s prison and police custody systems can fall short of providing adequate medical care for people in custody who have existing or complex medical needs – a group that Indigenous people are statistically more likely to be in.

“For both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, the most common cause of death was medical issues, followed by self-harm. However, Indigenous people who died in custody were three times as likely to not receive all required medical care, when compared to non-Indigenous people,” The Guardian reported in their 2021 analysis of deaths in custody since 2008.

Indigenous deaths in custody is certainly, in Uncle Ray Minniecon’s words, “a difficult justice issue” – and heartbreakingly so. And yet, as Stevie Lujan so wonderfully illustrates, Christians have long brought their “how long?” cries to the Lord when it comes to difficult justice issues.

How long then till your spirit revives us;
your body, your hands/ feet, your church to intervene?
Our prayer and our petition is to ask
That it not be long now
And so, we say: come and breathe life into your bride
all across this land we now call Australia

Let her be found in the courts
Let her be found in the detention centres
Let her be found in the prisons
Let her be found in all the places
where her groom can be found


(Copyright: Stevie Lujan).