Monday 22 February 2021, 6:00 am
As the inquest for Aboriginal man Danny Whitton begins this morning, his family and the Aboriginal Legal Service are demanding accountability for his death in custody.
Danny is lovingly remembered by his family as a kind man, a doting father, and a talented athlete with a promising career ahead – had his life not been cut tragically short at just 25 years of age.
Danny passed away on 9 November 2015 after falling ill from an apparent accidental drug overdose in Junee Correctional Centre, a private prison operated by The GEO Group. The inquest, scheduled from Monday 22 to Friday 26 February, will explore the cause of death and how Danny accessed a quantity of paracetamol or buprenorphine in prison as to be fatal.
“Danny relied on methadone while living in the community, but he was denied access to appropriate medication in prison. The people in charge at Junee Correctional Centre should have known this would deteriorate his physical and mental health and lead him to source relief wherever he could. Wouldn’t they have known drugs were moving through the prison?” said Danny’s parents, Kylie Knight and Darren Whitton.
Ms Knight, Mr Whitton and Danny’s siblings want the inquest to explore how Danny accessed the drugs; why emergency medical care was delayed; and serious deficiencies in how correctional staff communicate with families.
The inquest will hear that on 5 November 2015, Danny was taken to the medical unit at Junee Correctional Centre. On the morning of 7 November 2015, staff found him with limited consciousness, rolling around on his bed, and unable to control his movements. Almost five hours later, an ambulance was called and Danny was taken to Wagga Wagga Base Hospital.
Doctors diagnosed Danny as suffering from liver failure. He was urgently airlifted to Royal Prince Alfred Hospital (RPA) in Sydney, where he passed away.
“We have evidence from other men in the prison that as early as 5 November 2015, Danny’s skin was yellow and he was ‘pissing blood’, vomiting and in pain. Why did correctional staff wait another two days before taking him to hospital? Would he still be alive if he’d been taken sooner?” Ms Knight and Mr Whitton said.
Ms Knight, who is being represented by the Aboriginal Legal Service NSW/ACT, also wants the inquest to explore policies and practices around notifying next-of-kin.
“I didn’t even know my son was sick until Wagga Wagga Base Hospital contacted me. By that stage, Danny’s airlift to Sydney was already being arranged. I never got a phone call from Corrective Services NSW or Junee Correctional Centre,” Ms Knight said.
Both Ms Knight and Mr Whitton were distressed further by their experience at RPA. Mr Whitton said their son should have been given dignity by being placed in a private room rather than “on display” in an open area.
Ms Knight said she was treated poorly by correctional staff guarding Danny in the hospital. The day before Danny’s death, they stopped her from approaching his bed until she could produce identification, even though she had been there overnight.
“I didn’t have any ID on me. I was very distressed. I told them I’m his mother, and one of them said, ‘You could be anyone saying you’re his mother,’” Ms Knight said.
On 9 November 2015, Danny’s life support was switched off and his family sat with him while he took his final breaths. Ms Knight attempted to lay alongside her son to sing him a lullaby.
“As I went to get on the bed, the officer told me I couldn’t touch Danny. He said because Danny would need an autopsy, touching him would be ‘tampering with evidence’. He said ‘he is still Corrective Services property’. It broke my heart,” Ms Knight said.
“The system needs to change. It needs to treat people as human beings, not as addicts or state property.”
“Prisons have a duty of care to the people inside. The circumstances behind Danny Whitton’s death required urgent investigation and action to prevent further loss of life, yet it’s taken five years to get to an inquest. What does this say about the value placed on Aboriginal lives and the lives of those recovering from addiction?” said Karly Warner, CEO of the Aboriginal Legal Service NSW/ACT.
“More than 440 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have passed away in prisons and police custody since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody almost 30 years ago,” Ms Warner said.
“The majority of recommendations from that inquiry have still not been implemented. Kind, loving people like Danny Whitton’s family continue to be left with unimaginable and avoidable grief. We stand with them in their long quest for accountability and justice.”
Media contact: Alyssa Robinson – 0427 346 017 / [email protected]