Tane Chatfield’s family: ‘The prison system killed our son’

The family of Tane Chatfield outside the Lidcombe Coroner's Court on July 17. Photo: Rachel Evans

The family of Gamilaraay, Gumbaynggirr and Wakka Wakka man Tane Chatfield said on July 17 that the criminal justice system was responsible for his death. Tane was found hanging in his cell in Tamworth prison on September 20, 2017.

Tane’s mother Nioka spoke outside the outside the Lidcombe Coroner’s Court on the last day of an inquest into her son’s death that began on July 13. “Our son was not born to get a death sentence in the prison. Through this inquest I’ve learned that Tane left a paper trail that allows total strangers to tell me about the final hours of my boy’s life. But that paper trail still doesn’t give any insight into his beautiful personality, or the fact that he was a young man locked up on remand and fighting for his innocence.”

Nioka continued: “There are thousands of Aboriginal men women and children on remand across Australia. This can be a death sentence. Whether it’s by hanging points or the brutality of Corrective Services officers. Whether it’s by suicide, or a knee of an officer into my son’s back. Release these prisoners. Take down the hanging points. Allow prisoners to contact their families when there is an emergency or they need help. That could have saved my boy’s life and I want to make sure there is change to save the next life”.

Tane had served two years on remand without trial and despite not having been charged. His family maintain he was innocent of all charges and was set to be acquitted.

Tane was locked alone in a cell, despite consistently requesting otherwise. An attempt by him to call his family was denied by guards. Family members maintain that Tane suffered ongoing brutality at the hands of guards while in prison and hold the prison system responsible for the death of their son.

The coronial inquest heard extensive evidence of negligence and breaches of policy by Corrective Services officers and Justice Health staff in the last hours of Tane’s life.

Corrective Services NSW has claimed his death was “not suspicious”. But Nioka told NITV in 2017 that the family was “deeply unsatisfied” with how Corrective Services NSW had treated Tane, and them.

It did not notify them that Tane had been taken to hospital, or that he had been returned to his cell. The family disputed reports saying he was found hanging in his cell. They said other inmates reported that Tane had been bashed by prison guards.

Tane’s trial started on September 19, 2017 in Armidale. He was returned to Tamworth Correctional Centre the next day and put in a cell alone. Correctional officer David Mezanaric told the coroner that the previous night Tane had had two seizures, “one in his cell and another in a treatment room”.

Tane was assessed by senior nurse Janeen Adams before he was returned to his cell. She told the inquest that she had not received Tane’s discharge notes from the hospital, and instead relied on information passed on verbally by corrections officer Harrison Fittler.

Adams conceded to the Chatfield family’s lawyer Joe Blackshield that she had been emailed a document detailing Tane’s seizures, but that she had not had time to read it.

Contrary to Corrective Services NSW policy, which states that for inmates with chronic health problems “benefit from the company of others”, Tane was placed in a cell on his own. Not only that, the cell had a hanging point. This contravenes recommendation 165 of the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody which stated that “steps should be taken to screen hanging points in police and prison cells”.

Tane’s family are calling for major policy changes to address ongoing Black deaths in custody and mass incarceration.

“Through this inquest we have seen plenty of people trying to cover each other’s arses”, Nioka said. “But no one involved has come to me and said it was disgusting how my boy died. I have only got one ‘sorry’ throughout the inquest. But ‘sorry’ does not bring back his life from a prison system in Australia that kills our people. We need change now and we need justice.”

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