Deaths in Custody

Latest News

Funding Approved for National Database on Deaths in Custody 
Working Together: A Proposal for De-escalation and Safe Restraint for Authorities with Coercive Power
National Deaths in Custody Database Proposal
9 News Reports: Sydney’s Black Lives Matter Protests
News Au Reports: Indigenous Women Die in Custody
Death of Wayne Fella Morrison in Custody
Tane Chatfield Inquest
David Dungay Jr Death in Custody Inquest
Rate of Indigenous Death in Custody Continues to Rise 


  1. Overview
  2. De-escalation and Safe Restraint 
  3. National Database 
  4. Cases


Deaths in Custody are an expression of the ultimate failure in the duty of care of police and corrective services, isolating prisoners from their support and preventing access to health services. They may be committed at the hands of police, at the hands of prisoners or those in police custody themselves. Despite the clear mandate of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and the investment of hundreds of millions of government dollars, the deaths continue uninterrupted. The number of Aboriginal deaths in custody reflect the grossly disproportionate representation of indigenous peoples within the criminal justice system. The AIC reports that between 2017-18, 72 deaths occurred in prison custody, 12 of which were death by suicidal hanging, 21 were within police custody and 15 were by gunshot wounds. 

In light of this, Justice Action intends to raise public awareness of the prevalence and causes of deaths in prison and police custody. The fulfillment of duty of care obligations by police is what Justice Action endeavours to ensure, empowering prisoners so they do not feel burdened to end their own lives.

According to the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (1991), a death in custody can be defined by the following criteria:

(i) the death wherever occurring of a person who is in prison custody or police custody or detention as a juvenile; 

(ii) the death wherever occurring of a person whose death is caused or contributed by traumatic injuries sustained, or by lack of proper care whilst in such custody or detention; 

(iii) the death wherever occurring of a person who dies or is fatally injured in the process of police or prison officers attempting to detain that person; 

(iv) the death wherever occurring of a person who dies or is fatally injured in the process of that person escaping or attempting to escape from prison custody or police custody or juvenile detention, and

(v) Deaths that are supposed to have occurred in the presence of police officers, including deaths from self-inflicted injuries. These include deaths that occurred during a welfare check by police, or attempts by police to prevent someone from committing self-harm.

There are multiple factors that needs to be addressed when considering the global issue of deaths in custody and the failure of the government and the corrective service’s duty to protect and care for prisoners:

De-escalation and Safe Restraint

Safe restraint is used to limit an individual’s movement in an appropriate manner, to regain control without posing an unnecessary risk of harm to those involved. There is an absence of clear guidelines which mandate the use of de-escalatory tactics and safe restraint techniques in adverse situations. The aim is to develop effective cooperation and communication between authorities and inmates to create a safe environment for all, ultimately decreasing the likelihood of scenarios requiring the use of restraint. 

The lack of cohesive, mandatory training across jurisdictions partnered with a lack of transparency with the public by corrective services has meant there is little clarity regarding the utility of current policy. Furthermore, what constitutes as a ‘reasonable’ or ‘necessary’ amount of force, and which specific restraint positions can be used by authorities are not explicitly stated. There is a lack of cohesive, and mandatory training in safe restraint practices across jurisdictions, and individual state and territory training manuals are not made available for scrutiny. The lack of public accessibility to this information prevents accountability from being adequately enforced. 

De-escalation can be defined as a ‘reduction of the level of intensity’ of stress and tension in adverse circumstances. It can be achieved through the employment of tactics that aim to reduce tension between individuals, as opposed to physical control over one another. De-escalation should be utilised as an initial tactic before restraining techniques are implemented, to diffuse the tension which occurs in intense and adverse situations. De-escalatory processes involve listening and communicating with the target individual, which are safe and beneficial in the process of regaining control. However, in Australia, there has been a gradual decline in the focus of de-escalation procedures. De-escalation training programs across various states, which previously ran for several days, have been shortened to only one day of training. 

Working Together: A Proposal for De-escalation and Safe Restraint for Authorities with Coercive Powers

National Database 

The National Database serves to initiate and achieve the establishment of a platform through which coroners share their findings, and publish responses; minimising any chance for further deaths in custody. To achieve this Justice Action has been in contact with the offices of all state and territory coroners, the Australian Institute for Criminology, the National Coroners Information Services, State Governors, Coroner’s Courts and other responsible government departments. 


Tane Chatfield 

Tane Chatfield, a 22 year old Gomeroi and Wakka Wakka man, was found unconscious in Tamworth Correctional Centre on the morning of 20th September 2017. He died 2 days later after being on life support at Tamworth Base Hospital. Corrective Services NSW conveyed that there were no suspicious circumstances regarding his death and that he attempted suicide via hanging in his cell.

(The Black Lives Matter protest in Sydney. ‘Justice for Tane’. Source: Richard Milnes/REX/Shutterstock)

Wayne Fella Morrison 

Wayne Fella Morrison, was a 29-year-old Wiradjuri, Kookatha and Wirangu man who died in hospital on the 26th of September 2016. He was involved in an altercation three days prior to his death that he was pulled unconscious from the prisoner transportation van in a ‘prone position’ with a spit hood with no immediate resuscitation given. Experts believe that psychological and physical stress, physical restraint, and positional asphyxia relating to the spit mask used on Mr. Morrison contributed to his death. Additionally, the Aboriginal Legal Service was unable to contact and assist Mr. Morrison when he was in prison since there was only one Aboriginal Liaison officer.

David Dungay Jr 

David Dungay Jr, a 26 year old Dungatti man, died on December 29, 2015 in Sydney’s Long Bay Prison Hospital. In an attempted cell transfer, Dungay had refused to stop eating a packet of biscuits. As a result, six guards held him down in a prone position, administering a sedative while nursing staff and four other guards looked on. He called out twelve times that he couldn’t breathe before losing consciousness. By the time the guards realised the seriousness of the situation, several minutes had gone past before basic life saving support was attempted. Still, only two compressions were undertaken. Dungay had gone into asystole arrest, otherwise known as irreversible cardiac arrest. 

(A painting of David Dungay Jr. Source: Carly Earl/The Guardian)

(The Dungay family outside the inquest. Source: Carly Earl/The Guardian)

Frank Townsend 

Frank Townsend, 71, was held in the Kevin Waller Unit of Long Bay Correctional Centre. John Walsh, who was the cellmate of Mr Townsend at the time of his death, has been charged with his murder. Mr Walsh, who is currently serving a life sentence for a triple murder, is alleged to have murdered Mr Townsend in their shared cell in January 2017. According to a prisoner in Long Bay Correctional Complex, the circumstances in which this alleged murder occurred could have been avoided if Mr Walsh had been kept in a single cell, and not been forced to reside with a cellmate.

Tracy Brannigan 

Tracy Brannigan’s  Tracy was found dead in her cell at Dillwynia Correctional Centre on Monday the 25th February 2013, the cause of her death was suspected to be a drug overdose. Tracy was due to be reviewed for parole in late March, if granted she would be released in May 2013. Tracy Brannigan’s Case and Inquest raised issues that haven’t yet been addressed, despite the wide distribution of the Tracy Brannigan Action Plan.

Miriam Merten 

Miriam Merten was a mother of two and a mental health patient from Lismore Base Hospital. Miriam died on 3rd June 2014 from injuries sustained during her time in seclusion. The horrific nature of Miriam’s treatment was evidenced with shocking CCTV footage of her final hours, exposing the lack of care from the NSW Health Staff at Lismore Base Hospital along with their abject failure to intervene in her untimely death.

(Mariam Merten. Source: NorthernStar)

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