Please note: this story contains reference to people who have died.
A New South Wales Budget Estimates hearing into Corrections heard evidence on Tuesday confirming two deaths in custody of First Nations people in the last week.
On March 5, a 44-year-old First Nations woman passed away at Silverwater Women’s Correctional Centre.
“She was found unresponsive in her cell about 12.45pm and pronounced dead at 1.30pm,” a Corrective Services NSW spokesperson told NIT.
“Corrective Services NSW and NSW Police are investigating the incident. All deaths in custody are subject to a coronial inquest.”
A First Nations man also passed away in Long Bay Prison Hospital on March 2 after he was found unresponsive in his cell. The man, 35, was believed to be living with a pre-existing medical condition. The cause of his death remains unknown.
“Any death in custody is an absolute tragedy. People who pass away in custody take their last breaths away from their loved ones, often in extremely distressing circumstances,” said Aboriginal Legal Service NSW/ACT CEO Karly Warner.
“Our thoughts are with the families of these two people, and we encourage the media and the public to give them space to grieve and make funeral arrangements.”
Greens MP and Aboriginal Justice spokesperson David Shoebridge said the deaths weren’t just a coincidence, but a “predictable outcome of a racist criminal justice system”.
“Last week’s tragic death in Silverwater Prison was described by Corrective Services as an ‘unnatural death’,” Shoebridge said.
“Corrective Services acknowledge that the likely cause of death was hanging in a cell with known hanging points.”
Budget Estimates also heard that hanging points remained in cells at Tamworth Correctional Centre, despite a coronial recommendation to remove them after the 2017 death in custody of Tane Chatfield.
“It is well past time for real accountability,” said Warner.
“The NSW Government including Corrective Services and Police must operate with transparency and be answerable to families and the public.
“The dozens of recommendations from the Royal Commission and from the many inquests into deaths in custody must be implemented without delay, and the public must be kept informed of the progress of implementation.”
NSW Labor said both deaths must be “thoroughly investigated” by the Coroner.
“The NSW Government must tackle the continuing high rates of Indigenous incarceration in NSW head on,” said Shadow Minister for Aboriginal Affairs and Treaty David Harris.
The public was not made aware of the deaths due to a Corrective Services policy.
Corrective Services told the Budget Estimates hearing that the policy does not proactively inform the public of deaths in custody due to concerns of “public angst”.
“Two First Nations deaths in a single week is devastating and the Government’s new policy of secrecy only adds to the growing concern about First Nations deaths in custody,” Shoebridge said.
“The Government’s response to the Black Lives Matter movement has not been to address deaths in custody but to hide them from public scrutiny.”
Corrective Services also told the hearing that between July 1 of last year and March 5, 2021 there had been 24 deaths in custody.
Three of the recorded deaths are registered as unnatural and four were First Nations people.
“We understand that making changes to the prison system takes time but with multibillion dollar annual budgets it is inconceivable that Corrective Services haven’t managed to remove hanging points from all cells 30 years after the recommendation,” Shoebridge said.
Amnesty International Australia Indigenous Rights Lead Nolan Hunter questioned the accountability and transparency of the NSW corrections system.
“Here we have two tragic deaths in custody and the Corrective Services Commissioner Peter Severin claims the system can be accountable, while not making these tragedies public,” Hunter said.
“There is an expression that the best disinfectant is sunshine, and we need to shine a light on the reason more than 400 Indigenous people have died in custody and no one has ever been held accountable.”
Since the 1991 Royal Commission, there have been almost 500 Aboriginal deaths in custody.
“We’re coming up to the 30-year anniversary of the Royal Commission … and it feels as though very little has changed,” said Hunter.
“Where does the buck actually stop? If someone is being held in custody, someone has to be held accountable if they die.”
If you or anyone you know is struggling with mental ill-health, call or visit the online resources below:
- Spartan First Suicide Prevention Crisis Line – 1800 370 747
- Lifeline – 13 11 14, lifeline.org.au
- Beyond Blue – 1300 224 636, beyondblue.org.au/forums
- MensLine – 1300 789 978
- Kids Helpline 1800 551 800
- Suicide Call Back Service – 1300 659 467
- Australian Indigenous HealthInfoNet – healthinfonet.ecu.edu.au
By Rachael Knowles