Loss signals lessons yet to be learnt on custody deaths

This is another appalling example of a young person in her prime, murdered by a system where justice means racist, disrespect, punishment and torture to harmless people and provides billions to the rich.

The prisons are full of our people for committing minor offences. In many cases, our sons and daughters are just responding to corporate advertising and media content which specifically targets poor unemployed people.

When they get into trouble by over-committing to these items and substances, they are thrown into prisons which allows the corporations to make more money out of them with prison contacts.

Dion Ruffin says police have a lot to answer for in the days leading up to the death of his partner, Julieka Dhu.
(Source: News Corp Australia)

Michael McKenna 23 August 2014

At just 22, and locked-up for unpaid fines, Julieka Dhu suffered in agony in a Pilbara watch-house for three days before her death.

Julieka Dhu
Julieka Dhu, died in custody at a Pilbara watch-house
(Photo: Photo from Julieka's social media page)

In a tragedy that has again ­invoked the shameful record of black deaths in custody in Western Australia, the Aboriginal woman — about to see a doctor for a suspected leg infection when arrested earlier this month — had begged to be hospitalised instead of kept in jail.

But despite days of vomiting, worsening pain and complaints of fever and paralysis — first in her lower body and then her face — authorities deemed her medically fit to be kept in custody after two visits to the nearby hospital, although she reportedly wasn’t seen by a doctor.

Almost three weeks after her death, which has gone largely ­unnoticed in the face of a lockdown on information, allegations are emerging of police neglect and questions are being asked as to why more wasn’t done to help her by health workers.

There is also medical evidence of a head injury, possibly sustained while being held in the South Hedland Police Station watch-house, in the state’s far north mining ­region of the ­Pilbara.

Her death on August 4 is the latest in a litany of Aboriginal deaths in custody in WA that range from violent to perplexing but none of them more notorious than that of 16-year-old John Pat, who died in the Pilbara’s Roebourne adult lock-up after an ­alleged police bashing in September 1983. The outcry over Pat’s death helped spark the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, which among its 339 recommendations — many of which, have never been implemented — was that Aboriginal people should only be arrested when there is no alternative.

There were more recommendations after “Mr Ward’’, an Aboriginal man, was literally cooked in the back of a prison van in a 400km drive across the desert in 2008. Other deaths have served to illustrate the frailty of the homeless; in 2011, “Mr Phillips”, an itinerant Aborigine, died in the watch-house in Kalgoorlie a few weeks after being bashed by a gang of youths and in 2012 Maureen Mandijarra died in her cell in Broome after being arrested while drinking in public.

Aboriginal leaders and human rights advocates are now demanding answers about what happened to Dhu, as her partner Dion Ruffin — held in the cell beside her — has begun to fill the information vacuum surrounding her death.

Ruffin, 39, arrested with Dhu on August 2 for breaching a ­restraining order involving another woman, says police repeatedly mocked and dismissed her pleas as that of a “druggie, and then a mental case’’.

Ruffin, who admits to have used “speed’’ with his partner in the days before their arrest, says she told him she was examined by only nurses, and not a doctor, during the “brief visits’’ to the nearby Hedland Health Campus hospital.

He says police had to be pushed to send Dhu to the nearby hospital, on the first and second night of her detention, and was eventually given painkillers.

“She had a blood blister the day before our arrest, and we had popped it with a sterile pin, but then she woke up feeling sick and with this red line on her leg,’’ ­Ruffin said.

“She also had two old fractured ribs that still hurt and she told the police all of this. We had to beg for hours to get them to send her to the hospital, she was in so much pain and was vomiting, it got worse and worse until she couldn’t move her legs and was slurring.

“She was begging for help until her last breadth.’’

Police declined to comment on those allegations amid the investigation by their own internal ­affairs unit, which will report to the state coroner. But two days after Dhu died, police published a chronology of events asserting they took her to the hospital each time she complained of being unwell.

“Whilst in the lock-up the woman advised police of being unwell and on two separate occasions she was taken to the Hedland Heath Campus, on Saturday 2 ­August and again on Sunday 3 ­August 2014,” police said.

“On both occasions, medical staff provided police with a Medical Fitness to be Held in Custody certificate before she was returned to the lock-up.

“On Monday 4 August 2014, the woman again told police she was unwell and she was again conveyed to the Hedland Health Campus where her condition deteriorated and she passed away.”

Yesterday state Acting Police Commissioner Lawrence Panaia said WA Police took its duty of care towards detainees very seriously, and there were strict policies in place relating to the admission and ongoing management of detainees.

“In a situation where a detainee who is already in custody shows signs of being seriously injured or ill, WA Police policy requires officers to ensure the detainee is taken to a place for medical treatment, and this should be by ambulance whenever possible,” he said.

An autopsy has been unable to determine the cause of death, and the forensic pathologist is waiting on the results of further tests.

Ruffin also disputes a police statement that his partner of more than a year had died in hospital, after she was taken there on the third day she was locked up. She was due to be released the following day. “On the last day she was hysterical, saying she felt like she was dying and we were begging the police to take her back to hospital,’’ he said.

“I couldn’t see into her cell, she said she was on the floor and when the cops finally agreed to take her to hospital the last time they were laughing and saying she was acting. They opened the cell, and I heard one of them say get up, but she couldn’t and she was begging for help to get up and I heard a big thud, and then silence.

“I saw her being dragged out of the cell by her arms, her chin was on her chest and I cried out to her, but she was staring down, blank.’’

An autopsy report, obtained by The Weekend Australian, found an “undetermined (pending investigations)’’ cause of death.

Forensic pathologist Jodi White reported Dhu had old fractures of two ribs, with a “possible re-fracture’’ of one and bleeding in and around the lungs.

Dr White also found a head wound and dried vomit in her mouth, nose and all over her body.

“There was turbid, heavily blood stained fluid in both cavities in association with an apparent florid haemorrhagic pneumonia,’’ he said.

The WA Country Health Service, which runs the Pilbara hospital where Dhu was declared dead, yesterday declined to say if she saw a doctor on either of the earlier hospital visits. The service also did not reveal details about why the hospital handed her back to police twice in the 48 hours before she died.

“We can say that a preliminary review by Hedland Health Campus staff has shown that on each occasion she received appropriate treatment,” regional director Ron Wynn said.

Dhu’s death comes a year after a WA parliamentary inquiry found many lock-ups around the state fell well short of what is safe and fully functional.

Detainees were often unable to access timely medical services as required by law, the inquiry found.

Dhu’s youth sets her apart from some of the Aboriginal people with complex health problems who are known to police in remote towns in the state’s north.

In Broome, where there is an itinerant population of Aboriginal people from outlying communities, police have confided they are frightened about taking the drunk and sick into custody..

They wished there was a health worker in the lock-up, as there soon will be at the redesigned Perth watch-house.

“None of us are doctors or nurses, we are not qualified to care for them,” one officer said.

by Michael McKenna. The Weekend Australian

Also relating to this story, see;
Gerry Georgatos: 22-year-old police death in custody should not have occurred The Stringer 23 August 2014