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Deaths in Custody

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Deaths in Custody: Our Work

Deaths in custody is a profound social issue that has affected numerous Australian families, who have suffered devastating losses due the inability of government authorities to address recurring issues that endanger the lives of incarcerated individuals. Our team at Justice Action works to eliminate these issues in an attempt to drastically improve on the number of deaths in custody that could have been prevented. Due to the lack of support inmates receive from within custody deaths have occurred due to many factors including but not limited to drug use, suicide, isolation and coercive power. 

Deaths in custody are divided into 2 categories: 

  1. Deaths in Institutions (etc police stations, hospitals, vehicles) and;
  2. Other deaths in custody due to police operations

Following the tragic death of David Dungay Jr Justice Action works to provide support for those who have suffered the loss of family and friends within police custody. Our aim is to prevent further deaths from occurring, by working together to implement clear and effective policies on issues such as de-escalation, safe restraint and a deaths in custody database. 

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. 

De-escalation and Safer Restraint

Our aim is to secure better outcomes for inmates by facilitating a collaborative process amongst key stakeholders, ensuring that inmate safety is emphasised. By working together to implement clear and effective policies which mandate the use of safe restraint and de-escalation processes, we can ensure that further deaths in custody are prevented. 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 this abuse in turn can lead to injury or death. 

De-escalation can be defined as a ‘reduction of the level of intensity’ of stress and tension in adverse circumstances, particularly in scenarios involving authorities with coercive power. It can be achieved through the employment of tactics that aim to reduce tension between individuals, as opposed to physical control over one another. 

The lack of cohesive, mandatory training across all states and 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, there is a significant lack of detail on what constitutes a ‘reasonable’ or ‘necessary’ amount of force, and what specific restraint positions are used by authorities. The lack of public accessibility to this information prevents accountability from being adequately enforced. In response to this, the Deaths in Custody team at Justice Action have recently completed a policy brief on de-escalation tactics and the use of safe restraint by authorities with coercive power. Using case studies, legislation and policy from both an international and domestic context, the paper outlines and compares the different definitions and practice of force and de-escalation. From this comparative research we have been able to provide an extensive list of recommendations to prevent ongoing deaths in custody.

See our paper Working Together: A Proposal for De-escalation and Safe Restraint for Authorities with Coercive Powers here.

Deaths in Custody Cases

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.

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. 

Frank Townsend was a 71-year-old held in the Kevin Waller Unit of the Long Bay Correctional Complex. John Walsh, who was the cellmate of Mr Townsend at the time of his death, has been charged with his murder. According to a prisoner in Long Bay Correctional Complex, the circumstances in which this alleged murder occurred could have been avoided had Mr Walsh been kept in a single cell, and not been forced to reside with a cellmate.

Tane Chatfield was a 22 year old Gomeroi and Wakka Wakka man, who 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.

National Deaths in Custody Database Policy 

Our 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 our paper National Deaths in Custody Database Proposal here

See the petition here.


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