Justice for Fella: Wayne Morrison’s mother speaks out

Latoya Rule and her brother Wayne 'Fella' Morrison.

Caroline Andersen, descending from Wiradjuri and who has resided on Kaurna land, Adelaide, for most of her life, was waiting for her son Wayne “Fella” Morrison to appear at an Adelaide court on September 23, 2016. The 29-year-old had been arrested the previous weekend and, despite it being his first arrest, he was taken to South Australia’s infamous Yatala Labour Prison.

However, just before the Wiradjuri, Kookatha and Wirangu man’s bail hearing, a court clerk handed the judge a note informing him that there had been an “incident” and Wayne would no longer be appearing.

Following a few frantic calls, Caroline and her daughters, Latoya Rule and Ella Morrison, turned up at the Royal Adelaide Hospital “not knowing what to expect”. Caroline was told that her son was not at the hospital, although Latoya had overheard a conversation suggesting that he was.

Demanding answers about Wayne’s whereabouts, security escorted the family to the car park. Caroline, Latoya and Ella were made to wait there for hours, while assuming Wayne was inside. They were not told anything until the deputy corrections minister fronted up.

The day Wayne was due to be granted bail, 12 prison guards wrestled Wayne to the floor of a prison corridor. Staff claimed that there had been an altercation in his cell, which had led to the incident.

Caroline has always refused to watch the distressing footage of guards placing Wayne in handcuffs, ankle cuffs and a spit hood. Wayne was moving before being shoved face down into the back of a prison van and driven — in a prone position — to the high-security wing of Yatala jail.

At the end of the three-minute drive, Wayne was pulled unresponsive from the van. No cameras recorded what had happened inside. One guard, who had been in the front told an inquiry that “code black” had been muttered.

No immediate attempt was made to resuscitate Wayne: it took two and a half minutes before CPR was begun. At 3.50am on September 26, the young First Nations man died in the custody of Correctional Services South Australia.

Caroline and her family have suffered through an unfinished two-and-a-half month-long coronial inquest, a South Australian government inquiry and an Ombudsman’s inquiry. They have sat through a Supreme Court case and an appeal of that decision. In August, they will attend the resumption of the coronial inquest.

This process has been so drawn out because the seven guards who transported Wayne in the prison van have attempted to be excused from testifying on the grounds that they might incriminate themselves. Meanwhile, 19 prison guards attempted to have SA deputy coroner Jayne Basheer removed from the case. 

Green Left's Rachel Evans and Sydney Criminal Lawyers' Paul Gregoire spoke with Andersen about her family’s struggle for the truth and justice.

• • • 

Your son Wayne 'Fella' Morrison died in Royal Adelaide Hospital on September 26, 2016, three days after he was pulled unconscious from a prison transport van. Around 12 officers were involved in restraining him. What do you have to say about the way your son was treated?

They treated him inhumanely, like he was a body with no personality. It was excessive force. I still don't know why they couldn’t just handcuff him and walk him through the corridor to the next unit. It was just a three-minute drive. 

Apparently, Wayne was taken from the police cells straight to Yatala Prison because there were no available beds in the remand centre. He was put on remand, but sent there after his first time being arrested. 

Yatala Labour Prison is the harshest prison in South Australia. It’s where murderers and rapists are sent — hardcore criminals. It is not a place for someone who has never been arrested before. 

So, the van was called, and five officers put him in the back, while he was wearing a spit hood?

Yes. He was on his stomach, face down, with his ankles tied together and hands cuffed with his wrists behind his back. He was put in the prone position, and the same officers got into the back of the van with him. 

While they were restraining him on the ground, a female officer said he was spitting and asked for a spit hood. A male officer, who was facing Wayne, said it looked like he was just trying to clear his throat and blood and saliva was coming out of his mouth. The spit hood was put on and the officer that was facing Wayne could see that it wasn’t put on correctly, but nothing was done about it. 

Spit hoods are banned right across the world. South Australia is the only state or territory that’s still using them in this country. The reason they’re banned is that they’re known to cause death. 

The prone position has been shown to cause death, hasn’t it? 

Exactly. They did everything wrong.

The SA government is just about to release a new law stopping the use of spit hoods in youth prisons. My daughter Latoya and some others have been pushing for spit hoods to be banned in prisons. 

They put Wayne into the back of the van face down on his stomach. And then the officers got in with him: there was one officer at both of his shoulders and two on either side at the back. When they opened the door at the other end, they realised he wasn’t moving. They pulled him out. They put him down on the ground. Someone turned him over. Then they took the spit hood off and that’s when they saw he was blue. 

And they didn't try to resuscitate him? 

No. When they pulled him out of the van, they didn’t start resuscitation straight away. But a young man, who hadn’t been on the job very long, walked in and saw Wayne on the ground. Without even thinking, this kid started CPR. But then one of the managers told him to stop and go get a defibrillator.

From the time they pulled him from the van to the time the ambulance came, and they tried to get some response from him, it was more than 50 minutes. I know that because a nurse told me. 

The coronial inquest into Wayne’s death began in late 2018. There have been two and a half months of proceedings already. But the inquiry has since been postponed. 

Yes. Seven guards haven’t taken the stand yet. They’re the main seven. They include the five guards that were in the back of the van with Wayne, as well as the driver and a passenger. These seven guards tried to get an exemption from giving a statement in the Coroner’s Court. They argued that they had the right not to testify because they would incriminate themselves. But, that isn’t the case. 

What’s going to happen is that the coroner and the lawyers will each ask question, and it will be up to the officer whether they answer. They have to give a reason as to why they don’t want to answer a question. 

The inquest is about to begin again next month. Why has there been such a huge gap in efforts to find out what happened?

The guards took the coroner to court. The lawyers first tried to use NSW laws to prevent the seven guards having to give statements. Then, when the inquiry resumed, the lawyers for corrections claimed the coroner was biased, because she’d represented some parties that had been employed by the Yatala prison, years ago, when she was still a barrister. So, they took her to the Supreme Court. The judge said there was nothing to their arguments, and that the coroner would take the case.  

After waiting in the hospital car park for hours, you were taken inside and a nurse told you what had happened to Wayne. What did she say? 

She said that Wayne had been brought in unresponsive around lunchtime, and they had to put him on life support. She told me he hadn’t been breathing for 53 minutes when they tried to resuscitate him. 

I asked why they tried to resuscitate him after all that time. She said: “I don't know, but I want you to remember your son has a really strong heart. Don’t forget that, he has a really strong heart. They’ve left him without breathing for 50-odd minutes. No one comes back from that. But he has.”

When we saw Wayne, we were only allowed to go in two at a time, because he was still in custody. The list of people who could see him had to be approved by the minister of corrections.

He looked like Wayne, but he was swollen and his whole body was bruised. There was evidence of restraint. Even the tops of his feet were bruised.

We weren’t allowed to take anything in with us whatsoever — no phones. At any given time, there were between four and six corrections officers watching over him for three days. 

By 1am on Monday morning, the hospital staff said they’d done everything they could and it was time to let him go. So they turned everything off. 

I called the rest of the kids, because it was time to say goodbye. But, during that whole time, only two of us were allowed to go in, while the other two had to wait outside. 

Even right up until his last breath, they were in control. They were still dictating what was happening in that space. I was completely disgusted that they could treat people like that.

The medical staff were disgusted as well. A nurse literally collapsed in front of me sobbing, after her shift. She said everyone felt so sorry for Wayne and the family. She said it should never have happened. She told me again that Wayne had a strong heart.

I realise now that the hospital staff kept telling me that because, in every other Aboriginal death in custody case, they always blame the victim. It’s the prisoners’ fault it happened because they had a “weak heart”, or they committed suicide or they’ve had a prior medical condition. 

After a death in custody it’s always up to the family to speak out. 

Exactly. The government gave us no information whatsoever. We were lucky that Latoya had a lot to do with Aboriginal Legal Rights at the time, and they were there right from the start. Cheryl Axleby stepped in and she guided us. 

You’re about to return to the Coroners Court, two years after the coronial inquiry was first underway. What’s your view on the way the system is working?

In what world do we live when a group of corrections officers have the ability and the belief that they have every right to hold the state to ransom? Why are they allowed to do that? They were allowed to take the coroner to court and hold them to ransom. They’ve stopped the coroner from doing her job, twice. 

The coronial inquiry was only supposed to take three or four weeks. It could have finished two years ago.  Now, we’re going into the fourth year since Wayne’s death, and the third sitting of the coronial inquiry. 

These guards also believe it’s okay for them not to take the stand or take the stand and not say anything. They were with Wayne for the last few minutes of him being alive. They were near him. Surely, something must have happened in the back of that van. Did anyone hear anything? Did anyone see anything? What was the conversation in the back of the van? 

Something happened.

There has been a resurgence in the movement to stop Aboriginal deaths in custody, sparked by the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States. What do you hope comes out of these campaigns? 

Change. Real systemic change. Not only for myself, but for all families.

We need the government to stop and listen to what we have to say, and put in changes people are recommending. South Australia just passed a Custody Notification Service bill so that when an Indigenous person is arrested, the police now have to notify Aboriginal Legal Rights. That was one of the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

We need to refresh and rehash all the recommendations that were handed down in 1991. Some of them might not apply today, and there might be new ones that are needed like the banning of spit hoods. For my son, that was an element in his death.

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