Another death in custody - Casuarina Prison

The Stringer 8 March 2013

A young Aboriginal man was found dead in his cell at Casuarina Prison last Wednesday afternoon. This latest death in custody comes on top of a spate of Aboriginal youth suicides and self-harm related deaths since the beginning of this year in Western Australia.

So far this year there have been at least seven youth suicides or self-harm related deaths in Perth's Aboriginal communities this year.

The 20-year-old man, who is of the family Bennell, and for cultural reasons will only be referred to as Mr Bennell was found hanging in his cell at 3:50pm according to the Department of Corrective Services (DCS).

DCS said there were attempts made to resuscitate him.

His family are distraught.

Former chairperson of the Deaths in Custody Watch Committee WA Marianne Mackay said coronial inquiries and police investigations do not go anywhere and do not reduce prison- and police-custodial deaths.

"My heart just breaks for this family. I know what it is like to lose someone and then get no answers. The years go by and the silence grows deeper, and the will to do anything about all this wanes in many," said Ms Mackay.

"I have been campaigning for the deaths in custody to stop - for years I've been doing this but our young people are still dying, in and out of jail, at rates non-Aboriginal peoples do not experience."

"We have had two deaths of our young people in the community in recent weeks. There is just no hope in our young people anymore. Everyone is letting us down."

"How many more deaths in custody do we need to go through before something is done about it?"

"I cried when I heard of this young man's death as I cried when I heard about the deaths of our young people in the suburbs," said Ms Mackay.

"Think about what level of despair brings somebody to hang themselves."

Proportion to total prison populations there are more suicides on average in Australian prisons than there are in English and Welsh prisons. In fact Australian prisons have double the prison suicide rate of English prisons.
A coronial inquiry will be launched into the death however it may take up to two years before the Coroner scrutinies the police investigation and evidence.

Shine Lawyers lead social justice representative, barrister George Newhouse said his heart and sympathies go to the family and that what occurred was "tragic" but part of a dark phenomena in this nation now far too easily accepted as the norm.

Mr Newhouse reminded everyone that Western Australia has the highest rate of incarcerations of Aboriginal peoples in the country, 50 per cent higher than the Northern Territory.

"It's been 22 years since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and we still have not learned the lessons," he said.

"I think there is systemic failure and it starts with social services and education and travels through to the police and the justice system."

Indigenous Social Justice Association president Ray Jackson said that the problem is endemic, Australia-wide and that the Commonwealth needs to take a lead.

Mr Jackson has pursued authorities over a number of Aboriginal deaths in custody, including TJ Hickey's death in Redfern, Terrance Briscoe's death in an Alice Springs police cell, Veronica Baxter's death in Sydney and currently he is chasing up the Northern Territory authorities into the death of Peter Clarke - for whom he is acting on behalf of the Clarke family. The inquiry into Mr Clarke will be held in June.

"Little comes of it all but we have to keep on pursuing the justice or there will just be no end to these tragic, unwarranted deaths. The death of this young man in Casuarina should not only break the hearts of us old weary Aboriginal men and women but the hearts of every Australian," said Mr Jackson.

South Australian Elder Tauto Sansbury has been calling for more resources and 24 hour crises centres to fight Aboriginal youth suicides in Adelaide. Last year in the first 13 days of January Adelaide endured 8 Aboriginal youth suicides.

"It was only half way through the first month of the New Year and we had buried 8 of our young."

"We pleaded to the State Government for help and they promised support and funding for a crises centre in Adelaide and then months later reneged," said Mr Sansbury.

"What they reneged on was effectively the saving of lives."