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Death of Wayne Fella Morrison

Wayne “Fella” Morrison, was a 29-year-old Wiradjuri, Kookatha and Wirangu man who died in hospital at 3:50am on the 26th of September 2016. Mr. Morrision was involved in an altercation three days prior to his death that resulted in him being pulled unconscious from the back of a prisoner transportation van. He did not receive immediate resuscitation and it took 50 minutes for medical services to arrive.

On the 23rd of September 2016, Mr. Morrison was due to appear in the Elizabeth Magistrates Court. However, following an altercation with two guards in his holding cell, he failed to show at the proceedings. At the time of his death, Mr. Morrison was on remand after being refused bail by an Adelaide court. This was his first time in custody, and he had no recorded criminal convictions.

CCTV footage shows that Mr. Morrison was wrestled to the ground in the corridor with up to 12 guards restraining his hands and legs. A group of 8 prison guards proceeded to place Mr. Morrison in the back of the prisoner transportation van in a ‘prone position’ (chest down, face down). A spit hood was placed on his head, despite an officer stating it looked like he was just trying to clear his throat of blood and saliva.

There were 4 guards present in the back of the van for the three and a half minute drive. There was no CCTV footage to document what occurred during the drive, and these 4 officers have refused to give statements about the incident. Upon arriving at their destination it was discovered that the guards failed to realise that Mr. Morrison was unconscious, and only commenced CPR two and a half minutes later. Furthermore, the defibrillator in the prison was broken, which is not compliant with the duty to maintain up-to-date defibrillators in the prison.

Experts believe that psychological and physical stress, physical restraint, and positional asphyxia in respect to how he was transported contributed to Mr. Morrison’s death. Positional asphyxia occurs when a person has been restrained in a way where they are unable to breathe – a key issue in the NSW inquest into the death of Dunghutti man David Dungay. Asphyxia relating to the spit mask was also noted as a contributing factor and may have been exacerbated by the fact that the spit mask was not placed correctly on Mr. Morrison‘s head. Despite an officer noticing this error, nothing was done about it.

The use of spit hoods has been banned or heavily restricted in Australia following Mr. Morrison’s death and Dylan Voller’s case, which prompted the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory. At the time of Mr. Morrison’s death, South Australia was the only jurisdiction in Australia where spit masks were still being used, until they were finally banned in 2019.  Additionally, when Mr. Morrison was in prison, the Aboriginal Legal Service was unable to contact him or organise a meeting since there was only one Aboriginal Liaison officer. 

Furthermore, the coronial inquiry was only scheduled to take place across three or four weeks, but has been delayed since late 2018 following two months of proceedings. Currently, they have only proceeded to the third sitting. Since the inquiry began, the Morrison family’s lawyers have pushed a claim that the coroner presents a biased judgement as she had previously represented parties employed by the Yatala prison when she was a barrister. However, the Supreme Court has dismissed this case.

As an outdoorsman, a fisherman and a painter of Indigneous art, Wayne was highly regarded as an incredibly gentle man whose spirit was broken by the prison system. The disproportionate rates of Indigenous incarceration and the systemic issue of black deaths in custody have risen, as 432 Indigenous Australians have died in custody since 1991.

“At the time of the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, Aboriginal people accounted for 1 in 7 deaths in custody. That number has now soared to 1 in 4.”, said his sister Latoya Rule. This in turn calls for systemic change in the prison system across Australia, following the Black Lives Matter Movement in the United States, with the purpose to stop the deaths in custody. The recommendations from the Royal Commission should be updated to reflect developments, such as in South Australia where the Custody Notification Service Bill was passed to notify Aboriginal Legal Rights when an Indigenous person is arrested.

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