Coroner’s inquiry – “prisoners are treated like animals”

Gerry Georgatos The Stringer 18 October 2013

The Alice Springs Coroners Court heard from a distraught daughter how her dying father was humiliated and maltreated by an uncaring and inflexible prison system. She said her father was “treated like an animal” and that he was shackled to a hospital bed while frail and ill and despite being only days away from parole. He died two weeks later, shackled to the bed.

“It was absolutely disgusting, appalling. Prisoners are treated like animals,” said daughter Kylie Hampton to Coroner Greg Cavanaugh.

Last week the Coroners Court inquired into the death of the Arabunna man, who had been serving a sentence for a minor offence at Alice Springs Prison, and who had become grievously ill towards the end of his prison sentence. The family were distressed by “the way he was maltreated, humiliated and shackled”. Instead of relying on a Crown provided lawyer to represent the family’s pursuit for answers, they fund raised for a barrister, John Rowe, and for a forensic scientist, Dr Carl Hughes, who they flew to the inquiry, alongside Sydney’s Indigenous Association president Ray Jackson who has stood solid alongside the family right throughout their ordeal.

The Court heard that the Arabunna man had been unwell for quite some time and that he was complaining of a chronic cough. The family are distressed that he languished without medical care. The shackling shattered the family, salt rubbed into wounds. Mr Jackson said that the draconian practice of shacking caused distress to both the man and his family. Mr Hampton said her father was shackled to the end, going in and out of consciousness, frail and vulnerable. Ms Hampton asked the Coroner to consider calling for an end to shackling, for substantive health clinics in prisons, for changes which expedite parole for the physically vulnerable who are only minor offenders. When Ms Hampton told the Court of the last day of her father’s life, there was silence with Coroner Cavanaugh seemingly moved and ensuring the respect of uninterrupted grieving by Ms Hampton and the family. The man’s sister, Gladys Appo asked the Coroner to consider recommending changes to sentencing and parole regimes, that her brother should not have died in prison custody while he was due for release on his death bed.

The death of the Arabunna father was an unnecessary one. He was near the end of his sentence, and due for parole within a week after he was hospitalised on March 19 last year. He died on April 3. At the time the family had said that he had become critically ill and it was obvious he was at “death’s door” family members harangued Corrective Services to have their father taken to Alice Springs hospital.

Ms Hampton said her father did not have to die, nor in the “disgraceful” manner of his death.

“They treated my father without human dignity. They knew he was ill. He was an ill man going into prison three years ago. He suffered from diabetes and only six months before he died had been hospitalised for pneumonia, and once again then too they let him get seriously ill.”

“I feel my father died at the hands of injustice, and my family wants justice. We want to expose the Northern Territory prison system.”

Mr Clarke received a pretty hefty sentence for being in possession of marijuana. He was an Arabunna man who had grown up in and around Alice Springs. He was only 56 years old when he died, leaving behind nine children.

His brother and sister, Wayne Clarke and Gladys Appo, who both live in Alice Springs had been visiting him and both knew he had been sick and was getting worse, however they believe prison authorities were not taking his “complaints” seriously.

Last year just after her father’ death, Ms Hampton said, “The Department of Corrective Services will not tell us anything but we know he had been begging for medical attention for months. He told me so himself, he was not well at all and anyone could see this. Our people in prison are neglected,” said Ms Hampton.

“It was only when he was at death’s door they transferred him to hospital. His death was preventable.”

Once he was taken to hospital, the triage staff transferred him to intensive care. His respiratory illness had become acute and critical and according to the family his potential recovery had been hampered by prison staff not flagging medical attention.

One prison guard has told The Stringer that Corrective Services personnel often do not take as seriously as they should the health complaints of prisoners, presuming that often the prisoners “just want a day trip to a hospital”.

Last year, Noongar Stanley Farmer burnt his hand in a Perth prison while pouring coffee but said that prison staff scoffed at his “throbbing pain” and he was given only Panadol. He had to wait 18 days before a prison nurse finally believed him and sent him to Royal Perth Hospital where they had to amputate part of his hand because of gangrene.

Mr Jackson said, “How many of our people have to die before a spade is called a spade and everyone speaks about racism and not just sees it but remains quiet?” said Mr Jackson.

Ms Hampton said, ” Had he not been Aboriginal he may have been treated better. Instead, we are now without our father.”

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