Another Black death in custody renews calls for justice

Protest against Black deaths in custody in Sydney on September 29. Photo Andy Dries.

“This has to be the last death”, Nioka Chatfield, the mother of a 22-year-old Aboriginal man who recently died in custody told a rally in Sydney on September 29.

“I nominate myself. I want to be the last Aboriginal mother crying for my child,” she told the protest that was called on the first anniversary of Wayne Fella Morrison's death in custody and the 34th anniversary of the death of John Pat in Western Australia, which sparked the Stop Black Deaths in Custody movement.

The rally, which started at Correctional Services in the CBD, marched to police headquarters in Surry Hills. The family of David Dungay, poet and activist Lizzy Jarrett, First Nations leader Ken Canning and activists Raul Bassi and Paddy Gibson reminded the sombre gathering of the long list of people who have been killed in custody and whose families are yet to receive any kind of justice.

Media reports said the young man was found hanging in his cell in the Tamworth Correctional Centre on September 20 and taken to hospital where he was said to have died two days later.

The family disputes this, saying there were reports from other inmates that the young man had been bashed by prison guards. He had been taken to hospital the day before and then taken back to his cell. The family question the circumstances surrounding his death, saying they think he was killed in his cell.

The young man’s father, Colin Chatfield, told NITV he feels it was unlikely for his son to take his own life.

"We know our boy, we brought him up … He was too happy. [He had] a wife waiting for him, brothers and sisters, child waiting for him, He had everything to live for but he didn't make it back home. Again, we want answers. Why didn't he come home?

"[We’re] trying to find out what's going on with the investigations into [his] death. We ourselves are very suspicious of what happened. We want answers for our son. We need to bring this around for everybody to know what happened to Tane. He was going to court for trial in three weeks. He had one day of trial left …”

Greens MLC David Shoebridge, who is also a member of the Standing Committee on Law and Justice, said: “He should not have been on his own. He was killed by the justice system, which is not independent.”

Shoebridge said he believes there is a “deep conflict of interest” in the way deaths in custody are currently investigated. "When you talk to any family who's lost a loved one in a prison and they get told who's going to investigate the prison officers, other prison officers. Well, they know that's not a fair process.”

Even before an investigation has been undertaken, police and some media have said his death is not “suspicious” — a deliberate attempt to pass judgement that his death was a suicide.

The young man had spent two years in Tamworth Correctional Centre on remand in connection with a home invasion. He had been due to appear in court on September 21. A verdict was due on October 3 and it was thought he had an excellent chance of acquittal.

“I'm not scared,” Colin Chatfield said. “The system is corrupt. He had no reason to self-harm. We know he was murdered. We know he was brutally bashed to death and then hanged.”

Nioka told the Sydney rally her son was just weeks from being released from correctional services and returning to live with his partner and three-year-old son in Armidale. He had everything to live for.

“This is a boy that dreamed big. Why would he want to hang himself? He was waiting to get freedom.”

She told Amy McQuire he was a talented state-level footballer who was aiming to get to NRL level.

The family has vowed to “fight the corruption” in the justice system and said that they will not rest until there is justice. “They have picked the wrong people”, said Nioka. “We are not going to rest until we get justice.”

She called for people to share the news to raise awareness about ending Black deaths in custody.

According to the NSW Department of Correctional Services, the young man is the 15th person to die in custody in NSW of something other than natural causes since July 1 last year and the third since July 1 this year.

The latest death in custody has come to light as activists prepared to protest the first anniversary of Wayne Fella Morrison's death in custody.

The protest organisers, Indigenous Social Justice Association, Grandmothers against Detention and Stop the Intervention Collective, called for all youth prisons to be shut down; for young people to be taken to healing centres and not be put into prison and for justice for all the families of those who have been killed.

Protest organiser Raul Bassi told Green Left Weekly: “In the Royal Commission [in the NT] we have heard stories of kids being taken from their families, locked in jail, abandoned in isolation chambers, denied access to water, toilets and food. They have been strangled, assaulted and sexually abused by guards. And yet, none of those guards have been held accountable. They must be sacked.

“These kids need help, not spithoods and restraints. We are concerned that, just like the original Royal Commission into Black Deaths in Custody, the recommendations from this commission will not be implemented.

“We are also concerned that the recommendations will be watered down to be more palatable for the NT government to implement.

“People are sick to death of inquiries which do lead to any positive changes”, Bassi said. “We need independent investigations of all Black deaths in custody, those from the past as well as those happening now.”

The protest organisers also called for the surveillance footage of those who have died in custody to be available on demand and at all inquests.

In a moving statement, David Dunguy's family told the Chatfield family: “Don't give up. We've been waiting for two years and we are still fighting for justice. We need to support each other.”

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