Winning justice for David Dungay

A protest outside the Coroners' Court on July 16.

Young Aboriginal man David Dungay jnr died on December 29, 2015 after pleading for his life in the mental health wing of Sydney’s Long Bay jail.

The 26-year-old Dunghutti man from Kempsey, a known diabetic, suffered a cardiac arrest when he was pinned down by four members of the prison’s Immediate Action Team (IAT) for refusing to stop eating biscuits and injected with two strong sedatives. He was due to be released three weeks later.

It took the family and supporters two-and-a-half years to wrest a coronial inquiry from the government. Originally scheduled for the small coronial court in Glebe, it was moved to Downing Centre local court, to accommodate the large numbers of family, friends, supporters and activists. 

The two-week inquest, held from July 16 to 27, mirrored hundreds of other coronial inquiries into the deaths of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in custody.

The court was shown the harrowing footage of David being brutalised, begging for his life and dying. Family members and supporters were warned before the video footage of his death and inept resuscitation attempts were shown. Many left the room.  

On the first day of the inquiry a well-attended “Justice for David” action put the coronial system on notice. Dungay’s mother Leetona Dungay told Green Left Weekly: “We have got a lot of help from all my supporters and my family, and from the strength of us all we are going to get justice. I thank you for all the rallies that have pushed it this far.” 

Indigenous Social Justice Association’s Raul Bassi called for supporters to join the family in court and to donate to the family. Greens MP David Shoebridge addressed the crowd, urging people who wish to donate to Dungay’s family to do so through GoFundMe.

Black Lives Matter’s (BLM) New York chapter president Hank Newsome addressed a media conference, drawing parallels with the brutalisation of Eric Garner, who died at the hands of US police yelling “I can’t breathe”. Garner’s murder sparked the powerful BLM movement in the US. “It’s the same story, different soil: from Long Bay to New York City,” he said.

The mainstream press, SBS and the ABC covered the first days. The Guardian attended daily, ran a number of articles and produced a Breathless podcast on the case. The case went international — it was in the Thai news and Irish and German activists offered solidarity. 

Under pressure, in the second week Corrective Services NSW assistant commissioner Kevin Corcoran announced a new training course on the fatal risks associated with restraining someone face-down. The three-hour session for members of the IAT and any other officer who was untrained, would comprise theory, case studies and practice, including role play and training on how to avoid the risk of positional asphyxia.

The second week of the inquiry revealed video footage of attempts to resuscitate Dungay. Their failure was another indication of the disregard for Aboriginal life by corrections staff.

Bassi said: “The guards spent half an hour on resuscitation attempts when they realised David was dead. Only after this did medical staff from Justice Health came in. But they also made errors. They placed a tube down David's throat but did not take the lid off. They only worked on David for eight minutes. Some nurses admitted they had no training in resuscitation. How can nurses have no training in this?” 

Dungay joins a growing list of Aboriginal and Torres Islander people who have died while under the watch of the modern Australian police and prison system. Ms Dhu, TJ Hickey, Jayden Bennell, Eric Whittaker, Rebecca Maher, Mr Ward, Daniel Yock, Daphne Armstrong, Colleen Richman, Fiona Gibbs, Veronnica Baxter, Mulrunji Doomadgee, Kwementyaye Briscoe are just a few of the 340 people to have died since the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.  

James Jupp’s The Australian people: An encyclopedia of the nation, its people and their Origins reveals how vicious the settler project was. Britain’s attempted genocide of the first inhabitants was so extreme, that “by 1933 First Nation numbers had declined to less than 10% of the likely 1788 figure”.

This legacy of genocide has been augmented by a modern assimilation wave, implemented by both major political parties. Benefitting the perversely rich mining and landed elites, the rise in imprisonment rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and child stealing is acting to disintegrate community.  

Dr. Joseph Pugliese, co-author of Deathscapes, a project that records Indigenous deaths in custody in Australia, Canada and the US, noted: “The logic of the settler state … is really, about eliminating the indigenous people from their own lands, never acknowledging their sovereignty.

“To create intergenerational trauma, you incarcerate the up-and-coming generation — you incarcerate the young men and women, you break up the families. That way you disintegrate and displace Indigenous families in order to enable the settler state to secure its illegal occupation of Indigenous lands.”

A further affront to Dungay’s family was the announcement the inquiry will not resume until June next year to hear further witnesses. After an outcry, the inquiry was rescheduled for March 4. Campaigners promptly called for a national day of action for that day. 

Leetona Dungay commented: “My son’s life was taken over a packet of biscuits. I’ve heard from guards and nurses who let my son David die because they failed in their duty of care.

“I want to see change throughout the whole corrective system and justice health, so no mother or family have to watch their loved one die the way I have had to repeatedly watch over these past two weeks here at the coroner’s inquiry.

“I want all parties and people responsible to be fully accountable and charges laid for my sons’ homicide.”

David’s poem Life Inside is a poignant call to action. 

How can they lock us away with no regard

They don’t care or that’s how it seems

and they take away our hopes and dreams

Until we are out and free

this is how our lives are to be

It’s unfair and this we know

just waiting and waiting for our time to go

It makes us angry

it makes us mad

it breaks our heart and makes us sad

and we tell ourselves that nothing’s wrong

because we keep in mind that life goes on.

You can assist the Dungay family and the campaign through following Indigenous Social Justice Association’s Sydney Facebook page or donate via GoFundMe.