Deaths in Custody: Focus Areas

Duty of Care 

Australian police and correctional services have a duty of care to all prisoners. This duty of care must ensure the safety of all prisoners, by ensuring their physical and mental health needs are met in a swift and effective manner to prevent harm to the individual or others. Tragic and preventable deaths in custody show the continuous failure of these services to effectively realise their duty of care. By highlighting cases where duty of care was not realised, Justice Action is pushing for accountability and change within correctional services. 

Miriam Merten was a mental health patient at Lismore Base Hospital. She died on June 3rd 2014, due to injuries she sustained during her time in seclusion. She suffered a traumatic brain injury after falling more than 20 times whilst in the care of NSW Health Staff. Her death was due to a failure of duty of care, and could have been avoided. 

Tracy Brannigan died of a suspected drug overdose in 2013 at the Dillwynia Correctional Centre. During her sentence, Tracy’s drug use was known to prison authorities, raising questions about why it was possible for her to overdose. She was also placed in segregation, isolating her from her family and support system. Tracy’s death could have been avoided if effective duty of care had been given. 

Safe Restraint 

Safe restraint means forcefully making someone or limiting a prisoner’s movement.  Despite the clear and specific guideline on when to use and which safe restraint method to use, it’s common for police to abuse their authority. Abuse of authority can even lead to death in custody or a conflict. 

David Dungay Jr. died on 25th December in 2015, due to a sudden inability to breathe. He was known to suffer from diabetes, asthma and developed mental health issues. Dungay Jr refused to stop eating a package of crackers before being held down by prison guards. Hospital records showed that he was not sent as soon as possible to a hospital that specialized in treating diabetes, as had been recommended by his medical supervisor.

Wayne Morrison was a 29 year old man who passed away 3 days after being in hospital due to spit hoods and also asphyxia. He was transferred from a prison to another due to overcrowding, four officers who were in the van did not give any explanation when being asked what they were doing. According to the CCTV recording, Morrison was wrestled by 12 guards and his hands and legs were cuffed at the same time. In addition to what the police did, Wayne was carried in the wrong position with his head facing downward, his chest was downward as well. Mr. Morrison had no prior case before this one. This case could be avoided if police officers were trained in positions that could result in breathing difficulty.

Access to services 

Individuals incarcerated within Australian correctional facilities often experience various physical and mental health issues. These issues can be exacerbated by the stress of incarceration. Prisoners must have access to services that will ensure they are able to improve and maintain their physical and mental wellbeing. These services can include, but are not limited to, mental health services, addiction rehabilitation services and Aboriginal support services. 

National Deaths in Custody Database

This is a proposal for a new database system to include coronial findings on deaths in custody and recommendations from all Australian jurisdictions. It should be distributed nationwide with the responses from state and federal authorities who are affected by the recommendations. Justice Action has also created a petition to garner public support for this proposal, achieving over 50,000 signatures to date. See the petition here.

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