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Family Mourns Indigenous Woman Who Died In Police Custody

"My niece's life is worth more than $1000 in fines."

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One year ago Julieka Dhu, 22, died in police custody at South Hedland station in Western Australia's Pilbara region. Dhu was locked up over $1000 dollars in unpaid fines.

Julieka Dhu who died in police custody last year (Supplied)

Dhu had complained of feeling unwell while in custody, three days later she was dead. Dhu was taken to the hospital three times, the first two times she was sent back to police custody and on the third visit the hospital she arrived without a pulse, not breathing and unconscious.

Dhu's Uncle Shaun Harris, 38, has told BuzzFeed News that he will never forget the day he found out his niece had died.

"It was the anniversary of my son's death. He had died of cancer ten years before. I was travelling home to visit my son's grave at the cemetery, and while I was there, I found out."

"It was a huge massive shock, disbelief. I am having to remember and commemorate my son's passing and my niece's passing on the same day for the rest of my life because she died in a senseless, needless death in custody," Harris says.

Around the country, Indigenous people are over represented in the justice system. Western Australia has the highest rate of Indigenous incarceration in the country according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders account for almost 40 percent of the WA prison population, despite only making up just 13 percent of the general population.

This week around the country Aboriginal communities are holding memorials for Dhu and rallying against further deaths in custody.

In Sydney, people gathered at the Redfern Tent Embassy to remember Dhu. Elder Jenny Munro said that Aboriginal deaths in custody had been happening for too long.

"It is absolutely heartbreaking that that family have got to go on and just have that void, that space, where that beautiful young woman should be. No more deaths in custody."

Speaking at the Redfern rally was Ken Canning who has spent much of his life behind bars. He told the crowd that dying in custody was a very real fear most Indigenous people caught up in the judicial system.

"If you're black in this country it can happen to you, and we know it. When you are locked up, you think of all those people who died in a cold cell alone. We have to stand up and say our lives mean something more than this."

Harris says the death of Dhu has reinforced the Indigenous community's fear of police.

Shaun Harris at a rally for his niece Jalieka Dhu. (Supplied)

"Being black in Australia we've grown up since kids having some level of fear of the police, even if we've done nothing wrong we still feel like we've done something wrong. That is the sad reality," Harris said.

"My niece's life is worth more than $1000 in fines. We're pushing for custodial reforms. Not just for justice for Julieka or the family, but to prevent other deaths in custody and help other families."

Harris wants to see the implementation of a custody notification service, a 24-hour legal advice phone line for Aboriginal people taken into police custody, to be rolled out across WA. He believes that a CNS would have saved Dhu's life.

"If they had implemented a custody notification line she would still be here. It is proven to work. New South Wales has implemented it and they haven't had a death in custody for years," Harris said.

The CNS was one of 339 recommendations from the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. The commission highlighted the staggering Indigenous incarceration rates, which led to high rates of Indigenous people dying in custody.

In June Western Australian Premier Colin Barnett announced that he would implement reform to ensure safer custodial practices.

Paul Kane / Getty Images

Premier Barnett will form the Justice Ministers Working Group to oversee the implementation of future reforms.

"The high rate of incarceration of Aboriginal people is an extraordinarily complex and difficult problem that has troubled our community for many years, but it is something that no state government should ever give up on," Barnett said in a statement.

"However, approximately 40 percent of Aboriginal prisoners are incarcerated for what are considered low-end offences. In some cases, incarceration is warranted, but for many the government will work on better ways of responding the problem."

An inquest into Dhu's death will be held in November.

Allan Clarke is an Indigenous Affairs Reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Sydney.

Contact Allan Clarke at allan.clarke@buzzfeed.com.

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