Black deaths in custody — another again

June 17, 2011
A Perth rally to mark the 20th anniversary of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in custody report. April 15, 2011.


Yes. Again.

Another again to join a conga-line of agains going back decades.

Again, another victim of the callousness of the NSW Department of Corrective Services.

In this case, the unnecessary and useless death of 33-year-old Adam Grant le Marseny, also known as Adam Grant Morrison, who died in the corrective services cells of the Sydney police centre on, I believe, the night of May 28, 2011.

Information has been passed on that Adam suffered an epileptic seizure. Others in the cell with him frantically attempted to raise the alarm by operating the cell emergency or knock-up button.

I am told that by the time help came Adam had died. What is unclear is the facts about how long help took to reach Adam and what form the assistance took.

Was it merely an officer to see what all the fuss was about? Was medical assistance readily available or did the officer need to raise the alarm for medical assistance?

Had Adam been issued with his epilepsy medication, or were justice health waiting until he was sent to a jail?

These questions, and many others, need to be raised and, more importantly, must be answered to the satisfaction of his family.

The timing and the operation of the knock-up button will play an important part in this investigation, as it has in so many other death in custody cases.

Over many, many years coroners in NSW have been recommending that corrective services and police install a recording system that would not only record the date and time but also the record of what was said and by who.

Such information would be helpful to coroners during inquests as it would more clearly show the whole what-who-why of the process that is under investigation.

The buttons are there to call for help and this mainly occurs during the night or extended lock-downs.

Yes, there is some inmate abuse of the system, but the majority of the inmates know that it is indeed a life saving tool.

In the segregation and strict protection pods they are the only life-line to the officers in the pod office as they have no other way of communicating with them, for everything from requests for phone calls to toilet rolls or whatever.

Most police and corrective service officers have a love-hate relationship with the use by inmates of the knock-up system.

They have their paperwork to attend to, whether newspapers or magazines.

They have their every day conversations that seem to carry more importance than the call of a knock-up button.

It is very much a gamble as to when the call will be answered on the two-way system. It then behoves the officer as to what steps they may take in answering the call by attending the cell for a face-to-face dialogue.

One of the most enduring problems in jail is the inmates complaining that they had called for assistance and no officer answered or came to the cell.

Like the frustration of the coroners, there was little one could do as such events are not recorded.

And that is how the officers want it to remain. No recordings means you have anonymity. Plausible, but not perhaps true, deniability is the order of the day.

The officers’ word against that of an inmate. And that is the crux of the problem.

Inmates’ lives just don’t count, while coroners continue to be ignored because the protection of the officer(s) overrules any other consideration.

Such protection of officers by their departments and ministers leads only to further and further abuse, adding to their complete non-acceptance of their legal responsibility and duty of care.

Several inquests that I have attended had the coroners being told that no knock-up logs or records exist.

That the officers on duty at the time have no memory of any calls being made or received or even who received them.

There is nothing but a black hole of ignorance as to the required facts of how and why an inmate died.

Coroners state that they are there to understand how and why an inmate or detainee died. Without all, and I mean all, the facts being put to the coroner and then legally examined, what hope is there for justice?

In the case of Scott Simpson and Veronnica Baxter such details, though called for, were not produced. Officers were negligent, or even worse. But without the full story, officers continue to totally ignore the constant requests for knock-up information.

In Adam’s case, such information is also very important and yet corrective services commissioner Ron Woodham and justice minister Greg Smith do nothing to make the search for justice easier for the coroners.

They make recommendations only and that is the problem. The NSW attorney general, the same minister for corrective services and juvenile justice under the justice portfolio, needs to order the required work to be done and the money to fund it as soon as possible.

The officers won’t like it but those looking for real justice most certainly will. Sadly, it will be too late to be of any use in Adam’s case.

Perhaps the coroner handling his inquest will call for the knock-up recommendation again.

Another again.

We extend our sincerest condolences to his family, his friends and his community. May he walk his lands in peace.

[Ray Jackson is the president of the Indigenous Social Justice Association.]


Thanks Ray Jackson for this analysis -- your logic seems inescapable. Like everyone else, I have to wonder how this logic can continue to escape those who have the power to make sure justice is provided through the justice system. The so-called "knock up" mechanism is there to support at least a level of humanity in the custodial process. Allowing officers to hide from it is not in civil society's interests. Those with the power to act who choose not to act are corrupting the very system they purport to uphold. S. Phillips

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