A sick prison system still claiming lives

Sheldon Currie photo
Donna Smith clutches a photo of her son, Sheldon Currie

Sheldon Currie photo

Twenty years on from the Royal Commission, Aboriginal people are still dying at high rates behind bars.

Emma Purdy* profiles several recent cases and asks: Are prisons upholding their duty of care?

A distraught Donna Smith struggled to fight back tears as she addressed a rally of over a hundred protesters outside Queensland Parliament on 11 March last year, clutching a photograph in her shaking hands.

The picture was of her son, Sheldon Currie. In April 2010 he should have celebrated his 19th birthday. He never got the chance.

18-year-old Currie died on 20 February last year in Brisbane Hospital after he became ill in Arthur Gorrie Correctional Centre, where he was on a three-month remand for car theft. The protest reflected public outrage that his young life had become another death in custody statistic.

Indigenous prison chaplain Reverend Alex Gater, who spoke to Currie's inmates at the centre, said they alleged the teenager, who had a pre-existing medical condition, was denied medical assistance until he became unconscious in his cell. They told him that they were forced to threaten to riot before Currie was taken to hospital on 16 February and put on life support, where he died four days later.

Rev Gater blamed racism for his death. "He was sick for six days" she said. "He'd gone to the medical centre for treatment and was told there was nothing wrong with him, given Panadol and sent away. The Murri boys said the officer told them that if he could go to the toilet, then there was nothing wrong with him."

"He ended up face down in the cell and unconscious. The boys were yelling and bashing on walls and said they would cause a riot if they didn't take him to the medical centre. Where he was, they have 15 flights of stairs. They have wheelchairs and trolleys there but they wouldn't let them use them. So, one of the other boys had to carry him down 15 flights of steps. Now, that sends a strong message that this is blatant racism."

Rev Gater criticised the fact that Currie was imprisoned at all, blaming police harassment of Aboriginal youths. "The Murri boys are discriminated against by police," she said. "The police make up charges against them - resisting arrest, obscene language - in order to arrest them. Sheldon was harassed. His mother knows he was harassed. He was in for a misdemeanour. He had stolen a car."

Rev Gater also criticised the Department of Corrective Services (DCS) for allegedly attempting to escape responsibility for Currie's death. "Corrective Services tried to say Sheldon didn't die in custody because he was at the medical centre when he died. He did die in custody. He was in their care when he took ill and was deliberately denied medical assistance. It's racial discrimination against Aboriginal people."

"We need to expose the government failure on this issue, past and present," continued Rev Gater. "No police officer has ever been successfully charged. No one has ever been brought to justice. The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody ruled that any Aboriginal person taken into custody has to be medically checked. Sheldon was never checked. They failed in their duty of care."

After Currie's death, Queensland's DCS commissioner Kelvin Anderson dismissed the allegations his health was neglected, saying, that "we responded appropriately to this man's health needs and we were very responsive to the needs of the family after this tragic event." When contacted by this writer for further comment, the DCS declined to respond.

The Queensland protest over Currie's death was followed just four days later by the death of 33-year-old father of six Dion Woods in a Perth police watchhouse in Western Australia. Woods, a diabetic, took ill in the watch-house on 15 March 2010 and was taken to hospital for treatment, but after being returned to the watchhouse died shortly afterwards.

Dr William Hayward, Woods' uncle and co-deputy chair of the Deaths in Custody Watch Committee in WA, was critical of the treatment his nephew received. "A couple of witnesses say there was ill-treatment, to say the least." Dr Hayward alleged that Dion may have been bashed while being arrested. "Other prisoners have told us he couldn't walk, so it seems they got physical putting him in the paddy wagon. He was then taken to hospital on two occasions. The medical staff checked him and released him, saying he was okay."

"The next day he was found dead in his cell. The cause of death is still to be determined. Now, logic would tell you if a diabetic has alcohol in his system and is complaining of pain, he should be admitted to hospital and kept under observation. They were definitely negligent, both the police and the medical staff."

Like Rev Gater, Dr Hayward also believes racism is a factor in how his nephew was treated. "In Australia, Aboriginal people are treated as if they don't really have any rights and as second class citizens in their own country," Dr Hayward said. "Consequently, Aboriginal people can die and no one really cares about it. If they'd done the right thing by him, he'd still be alive today."

He criticised the lack of independent investigations into deaths in custody. "There are lots of flaws in the system. Police are investigating police... In Dion's case, proving negligence is very difficult. It's almost impossible. There's never been a successful prosecution over a death in custody, particularly involving Aboriginal people."

"I've told his immediate family 'Don't expect justice, because it just won't come'," Hayward continued. "It comes down to finance - whether we have the resources and the means to appeal a doubtful decision. What goes on here is that it will be brushed under the carpet and then we'll have to look at how to get justice. That will mean appealing in a higher court. Aboriginal people don't have the money for that."

Dr Hayward was reluctant to say more about Woods' case for fear of jeopardising the ongoing investigation into his death, which he said could take up to 18 months. "We've got to be very, very careful," he added. "If they know who we are talking to and who the witnesses are, they may harass them."

Dr Hayward believes the issue of deaths in custody is a widespread problem. "We're just one of nearly 1,500 cases Australia-wide, both black and white, which is shocking. I think the Ward case and the Hurley case [the death in custody of Mulrunji Doomadgee] have received so much publicity, but they're no more shocking than other deaths in custody. It's endemic abuse of Aboriginal people and the prison population in general. To stop deaths in custody, we need to look at the reasons why people are being locked up. A lot of people are in prison for minor crimes like driving offences, fine default and drugs when they shouldn't be in there at all."

Dr Hayward also criticised the fact that the central Perth watchhouse employs public servants to fill in for police as second-tier prison officers, believing their level of training and competence to be questionable.

Legislative Council and WA Green Party member, Giz Watson, is of a similar opinion. "There aren't enough medically qualified people and the staff isn't adequately trained. There's only one qualified nurse who just works from 8 until 6 o'clock in the morning on the three busiest nights of the week," she said. "I know the inspector of custodial services is aware there's inadequate medical supervision in the watchhouse, but he can't get in there to officially gather evidence as police custodial facilities don't come under his jurisdiction."

The seemingly avoidable loss of Woods' life in custody is even more difficult for his family to accept due to the fact he had not committed any crime, having been arrested for breach of his restraining order, although his wife had initiated contact with him.

Public anger was fuelled even further when his death was followed less than a week later by that of 39-year-old father of five Grantley Winmar in Sir Charles Gardiner Hospital, also in Perth, on 22 March 2010. Although Winmar had previously suffered two strokes and been diagnosed with meningitis, when he became ill in WA's Acacia Prison he was treated only with aspirin, shortly after which he passed into a coma from which he never recovered. Winmar had served all but three weeks of a six-month sentence for driving without a licence.

His brother, Richard Winmar, told the West Australian the day after his death that the family were told by doctors there had been bleeding on his brain for six to seven days while he was in jail. He said Winmar had called his mother from prison and said his head felt like it was "about to explode", but that prison officers had simply given him aspirin and told him to return to his cell.

WA's DCS assistant commissioner, Graeme Doyle, said: "I have received a full rundown of Mr Winmar's medical treatment over the past several weeks and I am satisfied he was treated promptly and appropriately." When contacted by this writer, the DCS declined to comment further.

Winmar's death in custody notification released by the DCS on 22 March 2010 read: "... As with all deaths in custody, a coronial inquiry will be held to determine the cause of death and circumstances and police and corrective services are conducting investigations. Therefore, further inquiries should be directed to WA Police."

When contacted by this writer, WA police said they were unable to comment on Woods' or Winmar's deaths as they are still under investigation and will be referred to the Coroner's Court.

The growing sense of despair and exasperation amongst the Aboriginal population is understandable. While the Royal Commission in 1991 blamed high rates of arrest of Indigenous people for the disproportionate rate of Aboriginal deaths in custody, ongoing arrests for minor offences are increasing.

Just weeks after Winmar's death on 14 April 2010, 27-year-old father of three, Lyji Vaggs, died after being handcuffed by police at Townsville hospital's acute medical health unit in Queensland. He had made the trip to voluntarily seek help because he was "hearing voices". Vaggs, who suffered from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, had been receiving treatment from the hospital for two years. After its medical team examined him at his home, they told him he needed to be admitted.

Vaggs' wife took him to hospital that afternoon and waited with their three young sons in a nearby coffee shop to hear whether her husband was going to be admitted. However, instead, she received a call asking her to go immediately to the intensive care unit, because her husband was not expected to live.

Hospital staff later said Vaggs became "boisterous" after he was told there were no beds available and to go home and take his medication. He was forcibly restrained by several mental health orderlies and security staff, who witnesses said lay and sat on top of him while the police were called.

Four police arrived and handcuffed Vaggs, after which he was injected with anti-psychotic drugs. Moments later hospital staff noticed he was no longer breathing. After a 45-minute bid to revive him, a doctor told Vaggs' wife her husband would never regain consciousness, having suffered respiratory failure and irreversible brain damage, which he said was probably sustained while being restrained.

Vaggs' death is being treated as a death in custody due to the police involvement. His distraught family have been told that no CCTV footage of the incident exists due to it taking place in a blind spot.

Gracelyn Smallwood
Gracelyn Smallwood

They questioned why the police were called at all, which they claim would have heightened his anxiety and psychosis. Vaggs' aunt, Gracelyn Smallwood, an Indigenous affairs, health and human rights professor and also currently Australia's most senior Indigenous nurse at the hospital in Townsville, said he was well-known to staff. She criticised the fact that none of his family was called when Vaggs' hospital chart clearly states that his mother can calm his anxiety.

"They didn't call any Aboriginal police liaison officer," said Prof Smallwood. "They didn't call any Aboriginal staff even though they all work 9 to 5 and it was only 3 in the afternoon, so it shows they have a long way to go in cultural safety. They could have called us, but his mother wasn't called, his wife wasn't called - nobody was called except the police. We're not talking here about a troublemaker, but an Assembly of God parishioner. He was a very gentle person."

Many criticise the fact that mentally ill people are taken into custody at all, particularly when arrested for minor offences. While the Commission recommended that imprisonment only be used as a sanction of last resort, it also made several recommendations to protect prisoners classed as mentally "at risk" who must be detained. However, failures to meet such recommendations, such as detention in a safe cell with no hanging points and 5-minute observations, are known to have led to avoidable deaths.

One such case was the death of 32-year-old Wendy Hancock in Mullawa Prison, New South Wales in October 2004. Hancock was detained on a charge of property damage after she broke a window and assaulted the arresting police officers. Although diagnosed as "at risk" by prison authorities shortly after her arrival, she was imprisoned in a cell with hanging points. Just five days after she was taken into custody, after being left unobserved for over twenty minutes, Hancock was found hanged from bars in her cell.

Speaking to this writer in September 2010, Hancock's mother, Rose, then 64, told how she went down to Mullawa to view the cell where her daughter died. "We could see there were hanging points," said Rose. "The person who was supposed to be on 24-hour watch said she couldn't quite see what Wendy was doing. So I asked her, 'Could I just sit down there where you're sitting for a minute' and sat down in front of the monitors, and I could see plain as day what everyone was doing, so I don't know why she couldn't. There were four of them on duty but they were new. They weren't doing the job they were paid to do. It's very upsetting that they can put untrained people on 24-hour watch."

"At first I didn't know what to do," she continued. "Then I saw an ad on the TV for Redfern legal aid. But they just thought 'We'll give her some shut up money.' That's what it was, shut up money. But the money's still in the bank. It's too painful to touch. No amount of money will ever ease the pain. I couldn't care less about the money. But I wasn't gonna sweep it under the carpet. I wasn't gonna let them get away with it."

"It will never go away," Rose added. "The anniversary is coming up. Last year on her birthday we had a bit of a celebration but the next day I ended up in hospital with deep depression."

Methods used to assess prisoners' mental health have also come under criticism. A report by the Department of Justice in the Northern Territory released in 2009 called Darwin's main Berrimah prison's use of a "smiley faces" test that all prisoners are required to take on arrival a "ludicrous" method of assessing mental health. The report also said Berrimah "falls well short of the test of decency", calling it a "forbidding building" that reflects the "repressive values" of the 1970s.

Such ominous environments are thought to be a fundamental cause of increasing deaths in custody of prisoners with mental health issues. Disproportionately high incarceration rates for Aboriginal people, coupled with the fact they have higher rates of ill-health than any other group in Australia, mean they are most at risk.

The inferior health status of Indigenous people is clearly linked to social inequalities and poverty. The devaluation of Aboriginal culture, separation of families and dispossession of whole communities has resulted in a loss of autonomy which has undermined Indigenous social vitality and has in turn affected the ability to meet health challenges. As a result, this cycle of dispossession, demoralisation and poor health continues in many Aboriginal communities throughout Australia today.

Indigenous Australians have the fourth highest rate of non-insulin dependent diabetes in the world. While estimates vary, it is thought that between 10 percent and 30 percent of Aboriginal people are affected, between two to four times higher than the rate for non-Indigenous people. The incidence of gestational diabetes is also two to three times higher among Aboriginal women than in the general population.

Amongst other factors, the high rate of diabetes among Indigenous Australians is thought to be exacerbated by diet, poor standards of living and reduced access to medical care. Unmanaged diabetes often results in kidney failure, with Indigenous people comprising 9 percent of all new kidney failure patients, although representing just 2.5 percent of Australia's population. Cancer deaths are also around 45 percent more common in Indigenous than non-Indigenous people, due amongst other factors to later diagnosis and being less likely to receive adequate treatment.

Indigenous Australians also suffer worse mental health. Aboriginal males have one of the highest suicide rates in the world, and while impossible to measure definitively, Australian Bureau of Statistics data suggest that in 2007 Indigenous suicides accounted for 3.7 percent of all deaths compared to 1.3 percent of non-Indigenous deaths. In 2006, the Indigenous suicide rate accounted for 4.3 percent of all deaths, while just 1.3 percent of non-Indigenous deaths resulted from suicides. The average age at which Indigenous people took their own lives was also much younger than that of non-Indigenous people.

A 2004-2005 national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health survey found that Indigenous people aged 18 years or older were twice as likely as their non-Indigenous counterparts to feel high or very high levels of psychological distress. It found 77 percent of Indigenous people experienced one or more significant stressors in the previous 12 months, particularly for the "death of a family member or friend", "alcohol or drug related problem", "trouble with police", and "witness to violence". Nineteen percent of Indigenous people reported that a member of their family had been incarcerated in the previous 12 months.

A Western Australian Aboriginal child health survey launched on 13 April 2005 reported that 70 percent of Indigenous children younger than 17 years were living in families that had experienced at least three major life stress events such as death, incarceration, violence or severe hardship in the preceding 12 months. Its subsequent survey launched in November 2006 found that 22 percent had experienced at least seven such events.

Increasing incarceration rates for many such mentally and physically vulnerable individuals, often for misdemeanours, combined with repeated failures to provide prisoners with adequate mental and physical healthcare continue to cause considerable public alarm.

On 17 March 2006 the UN Human Rights Committee examined the case of 16-year-old Corey Brough, who was sentenced to eight months' imprisonment on 5 March 1999 for burglary, assault and bodily harm. Brough, who was suffering from a mild mental disability with significant impairments of his adaptive behaviour, communication skills and cognitive functioning, participated in a riot at Kariong Juvenile Detention Centre in New South Wales on 21 March 1999 to draw attention to "the mistreatment and brutalisation by Kariong staff."

He was then referred to an adult correctional facility, Parklea Correctional Centre, which he protested, and where he was segregated from other inmates in a "safe cell", following which his condition deteriorated. After Brough's requests to return to the juvenile detention facility were denied, he repeatedly threatened suicide, resulting in him being placed in a "dry" cell without a blanket or any of his clothes, except his underwear.

The Committee found Australia had breached several of Brough's entitlements under International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, including the right to an effective remedy, the right to freedom from cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and the right to adequate protection for children.

It found Brough's "extended confinement to an isolated cell without any possibility of communication, combined with his exposure to artificial light for prolonged periods and the removal of his clothes and blanket, was not commensurate with his status as a juvenile person in a particularly vulnerable position because of his disability and his status as an Aboriginal [person]," concluding that his treatment had violated the optional protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The Committee's judgment continued: "... persons deprived of their liberty must not be subjected to any hardship or constraint other than that resulting from the deprivation of liberty; respect for the dignity of such persons must be guaranteed under the same conditions as for that of free persons ..."

This article was previously published in Tracker - September 2011 print edition

* Emma Purdy is an Irish journalist, who recently spent more than a year in Australia, much of that time researching Aboriginal deaths in custody. This is Emma's third 'On Our Watch' article, a series which looks at deaths in custody. Emma's last feature was on the death of Douglas Scott.