Australia

NSW government accused of ‘policy of secrecy’ after two Indigenous people died in custody this past week

Two Indigenous people have died in custody in NSW in the past week, but the deaths only came to light when a bureaucrat was questioned in a parliamentary hearing.

An Indigenous man in his mid-30s died last Tuesday at Long Bay Hospital, which treats NSW prisoners.

Authorities believe his death was “natural” and that he had “multiple” medical issues.

“It was identified by Health and by our staff supervising him when he actually was unresponsive and then obviously support was immediately provided,” Corrective Services NSW Commissioner Peter Severin told a Budget Estimates session on Tuesday.

An Indigenous woman in her mid-50s died in her cell at Silverwater Women’s Prison three days later.

Mr Severin said it’s believed she took her own life.

Both deaths will be referred to the coroner.

The NSW government did not notify the public or the media of the deaths, with the latter only revealed during questioning at Budget Estimates by Greens MP David Shoebridge.

The government does not publicise deaths in custody, Mr Severin said.

It is “not appropriate” to advise the public of deaths without any detail and “cause a lot of anger, a lot of angst and a lot of grief”, he said.

“We won’t put public statements out. That is not in any way to suggest that we are not 100 pre cent accountable,” Mr Severin said.

The government does inform the Aboriginal Legal Service and Department of Aboriginal Affairs of Indigenous deaths in custody, Mr Severin said.

Mr Shoebridge criticised the failure to notify the public.

“Two First Nations deaths in a single week is devastating and the government’s new policy of secrecy only adds to the growing concern about First Nations deaths in custody,” he said in a statement.

“The government’s response to the Black Lives Matter movement has not been to address deaths in custody but to hide them from public scrutiny.”

The woman was held in a cell with hanging points after a self-harm risk assessment did not identify her as high risk.

Mr Severin said that if prisoners are identified as high-risk they are not held alone in cells with hanging points.

He conceded there was no dedicated budget for removing ligature points, but said a scheme to remove them is funded through a minor works program.

Hanging points were identified as a risk in the 1991 report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths In Custody.

Mr Shoebridge said he understood making changes to the prison system takes time but that it was “inconceivable” that hanging points had not yet been removed from all cells.

“Now thirty years after the Royal Commission it is astounding that First Nations inmates are being placed in cells with known hanging points,” Mr Shoebridge said.

Of the 24 deaths in custody in NSW since 1 July 2020, four were Indigenous. Three of the 24 were categorised as unnatural.

The Aboriginal Legal Service has called for real accountability after the deaths.

“Any death in custody is an absolute tragedy. People who pass away in custody take their last breaths away from their loved ones, often in extremely distressing circumstances,” said Karly Warner, CEO of the Aboriginal Legal Service NSW/ACT.

“Our thoughts are with the families of these two people, and we encourage the media and the public to give them space to grieve and make funeral arrangements.”

Ms Warner said while identification of people who die in custody must be up to families, governments should be more transparent and timely in the information they share with the public.

“The NSW Government has an obligation to let people know things that are in the public interest, and this includes when there has been a death in their care,” Ms Warner said.

“One option would be for Corrective Services and Police to release basic details such as the date and location of death, and the age, gender and Aboriginality of the deceased person.

“No personal information should be released by Corrective Services NSW and the NSW Government unless there is consent from the family, after the family have had an opportunity to obtain legal advice.”

She also called for the ALS and the Coroner’s Court to be adequately resourced to provide support to families following a death in custody.

Readers seeking support can contact Lifeline crisis support on 13 11 14, Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467 and Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800 (for young people aged 5 to 25).

More information is available at Beyond Blue.org.au and lifeline.org.au.

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