Another unexplained death in custody

September 26, 2017
The family of the young man said he had no reason to self-harm. Photo: Jeremy Malcolm Brown

A 22-year-old Aboriginal man has died in custody after being found unconscious in his cell at the Tamworth Correctional Centre on September 20. He was taken to hospital and died two days later.

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

But his family, who rallied outside Tamworth Correctional Centre on September 24 say he had no reason to self-harm.

The young man had been due to appear in court on September 21. His family told the Guardian he was hopeful of being released from jail in October and returning to live with his partner and son in Armidale.

According to social media reports from the family, the young man was found hanging in his cell after reports from other inmates that he had been bashed by prison guards. He had been taken to hospital the day before and then taken back to his cell.

Nioka Chatfield, who had raised the young man since his was a baby, told Amy McQuire that he was a talented state-level footballer who was aiming to get to NRL level. She said the family were in shock.

The family are appealing for help and have set up a GoFundMe campaign to spread awareness about the “premature” and “preventable” death.

“On the 19th of September my sister Marisha Vale had visited him not knowing it would be the last time she spoke to our brother”, Gemma-Lea wrote.

“My brother had passed away under very suspicious circumstances … From the information we could gather Tane was yet another victim of BLACK DEATH IN CUSTODY — which would then try and be obscured as a suicide.”

She said the family was going to “fight the corruption” in the justice system and that this should not have happened in the Tamworth Correctional Facility.

She said the family would not rest until there was justice for her brother. She has called for people to share the news to raise awareness about ending Black deaths in custody.

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

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

Activists are organising a national day of action on September 29 to demand an end to Black deaths in custody; for youth prisons to be shut down; and for young people to be taken to healing centres and not be put into prison.

The protest will now also be addressed by the family of the young man who has just died in custody.

One of the protest organisers 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 national action on September 29 is demanding real action, including the closure of youth prisons, the guards and police found to be abusing, assaulting, murdering and sanctioning abuse of prisoners be sacked and brought to justice and that community-led alternatives to prison are established. The protest organisers are also calling for the surveillance footage of those who have died in custody to be available on demand and at all inquests.

The Sydney rally, which will also remembering the 34th anniversary of the death of John Pat in Roebourne in West Australia, is being organised by the Indigenous Social Justice Association, Grandmothers Against Removals Sydney and Stop The Intervention Collective.

It will start at the Corrective Services at 20 Lee Street near Central Station and will march to the NSW Police HQ in Surry Hills.

The Facebook event is here.

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