City News

Calls for independent body to investigate deaths in custody

Leetona Dungay (left) at the Black Lives Matter rally on Monday. Photo: Allison Hore

By ALLISON HORE

Black Lives Matter protesters gathered at the Domain on Monday to call for the establishment of an independent body to investigate Indigenous deaths in custody. 

Attending the rally were families of a number of Indigenous people who had died while being held in police custody. They are calling for a new, First Nations-led body to be established to investigate deaths in custody, rather than internal investigations by police. 

Speaking at the rally was Leetona Dungay, whose son David Dungay Jr died in Sydney’s Long Bay Jail in 2015, led the march from the Domain to NSW Parliament house.

“The NSW government refusing to lift his finger to hold anyone accountable for the black deaths in custody, it must stop,” she said.

“The system of police investigations for prison guards must stop. The police arrest of our aboriginal adults and children must stop.”

David Dungay Jr was held down by 6 correctional officers and injected with sedatives after he ate rice crackers in his cell. He had been due to be released on parole just three weeks after the incident occurred. 

Like George Floyd whose death at the hands of police in the USA fired up protests around the world, Dungay’s last words were “I can’t breathe”. He uttered this twelve times. 

At the end of a four year long inquest into Dungay’s death the coroner declined to refer the officers involved in the death to prosecutors or other disciplinary bodies. Ms. Dungay says she has spent the past four years grieving over the fact her son never came home.

“Year after year the government and police and judges keep putting more and more aboriginal people into prison,” 

“But too often it isn’t a prison sentence, it’s a death sentence. Just like it was for my son.”

Upper House inquiry ongoing

The rally coincided with hearings before the NSW Upper House as part of an inquiry into the handling of Indigenous incarceration and deaths in custody. The inquiry, which began in October, resumed on the 3rd of December.  

During Monday’s hearing, the New South Wales police watchdog called for its powers to be expanded to include deaths in jails with a senior commissioner,  Lea Drake, saying there is a severe “lack of trust” in how these deaths are currently investigated.

Makayla and Taleah Reynolds, sisters of Nathan Reynolds, an Indigenious man who died of an asthma attack in a NSW prison in 2018, also attended the rally. On the same day, the sisters presented evidence about the mishandling of their brother’s death before the inquiry. 

Despite a recommendation from a prison nurse, Nathan Reynolds did not receive an asthma assessment or plan of management from healthcare workers at the prison where he was being held. The note of recommendation written by the nurse in the internal system was overridden after he experienced the severe asthma attack which led to his death. 

While only making up 2 percent of Australia’s population, 27 percent of the country’s prison population is Indigenous. The NSW Aboriginal Land Council said about a third of inmates in adult prisons were on remand, and many were not given prison sentences upon conviction. This implies many people are being held on remand for low level offences. 

Over 400 Indigenous people have died in police custody across the nation since the 1991 royal commission into deaths in custody.

Not one person has ever been convicted.

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