Elders set up watch to end cell deaths
Ian Gerard
28th December 2006

PALM Islanders have vowed that Mulrunji Doomadgee will be the last member of their community to die in custody.

Following the 2004 death that sparked riots in the north Queensland Aboriginal community, respected elder Ralph Norman, 64, is one of several members of a "cell watch" team that checks on the welfare of young men held in the local watch-house.

"We don't want that (death in custody) to happen again, and we have to try and get the message across to all the other young fellows, let them know about the community and let them know they're not on their own," Mr Norman said.

The cell watch team is part of the local men's group, an organisation whose popularity had waned but is now experiencing a resurgence, due to the efforts of Mr Norman and Robert Blackley.

The popularity reflects a new sense of purpose among Palm Island men.

"For too long the strong ones in the community have been the women," island leader Brad Foster last week told a 400-strong crowd, who had come to listen to Queensland Premier Peter Beattie and Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson talk about Doomadgee's death and the Director of Public Prosecution's failure to charge Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley.

Sergeant Hurley had earlier been blamed in a coroner's report for the death. "It's about time the men in this community started leading by example, and that is what's going to happen," Mr Foster said.

After a scuffle between Doomadgee and Sergeant Hurley, in which both men fell, Doomadgee was dragged to his cell with four broken ribs, a torn liver and a ruptured spleen. Police failed to carry out proper checks on him and he died shortly afterwards.

Now, when a man is arrested and taken to the Palm watch-house, police call a member of the cell watch team so they can visit and make sure there are no problems. On release, the men are offered one-on-one counselling.

"It's working out all right," Mr Norman said. "We want funding to do a night patrol now though. Many of the children from the furthest suburbs, we have to pick them up and take them and get them away from the community ... we don't want them to end up in Cleveland (jail in Brisbane)."

Mr Norman has lived on Palm Island all his life and he believes it's time for the community to fend for itself.

"All we want is a place where we can develop without depending on the taxpayers," he said. "We could work our own resources, like a fishing industry or a clam farm or oysters, but we have never got a program to get there and do it.

"Welfare dependency - we never get away from that. We are trying to break the cycle."