Quick Exit

“Incompetence and lack of humanity”: substandard prison healthcare leading to deaths in custody


Tuesday 30 November 2021


Ahead of appearing before a parliamentary inquiry into the Coroner’s Court on Tuesday morning, the Aboriginal Legal Service is urging parliamentarians to address the deficit in healthcare across NSW prisons.

Sarah Crellin, Acting Principal Legal Officer at the Aboriginal Legal Service (NSW/ACT) Limited (ALS), is appearing before the Inquiry into the Coronial Jurisdiction in New South Wales and hopes to highlight the ways inadequate healthcare contributes to deaths in custody.

A prison sentence should not be a death sentence, but substandard prison healthcare is taking Aboriginal lives. People behind bars are dying of asthma attacks, paracetamol overdoses and ear infections.

"These are standard health issues that we would not accept as fatal in the community, so why are they fatal in prisons?” Ms Crellin asked.

“We are working with families who don’t understand how their loved ones can die before their time in the so-called care of the state, and how no one can be held accountable,” she said.

The ALS is currently representing 17 Aboriginal families whose loved ones have died in prisons or police operations. Most recently on Friday 19 November, the Coroner delivered findings into the death of Danny Whitton, a 25-year-old Wonnarua man who died after falling ill in Junee Correctional Centre in 2015.

The Coroner found that Danny had died of multiple organ failure due to acute paracetamol poisoning. The coronial findings extensively criticised the prison’s “overall suboptimal care” that led Danny to spend two days in the prison’s clinic as his condition deteriorated beyond the possibility of recovery, before finally being airlifted to Sydney, where he died in excruciating pain.

“The Nelson Mandela rules for treatment of prisoners state they ‘should enjoy the same standards of health care that are available in the community’. Yet time and time again, here in NSW, we have seen Aboriginal people pay with their lives for the incompetence and lack of humanity of prison health systems,” Ms Crellin said.

In its submission to the parliamentary inquiry, the ALS argues that governments, public bodies including Justice Health, and institutions including private prisons are too easily able to dodge coronial recommendations and avoid reform.

The role of the Coroner is to uncover the facts, not dole out punishment, but it is absolutely inhumane to expect families to sit through days of evidence and contribute to this gut-wrenching process if it’s not going to lead to change,” Ms Crellin said.

Among the ALS’ recommendations to Parliament are that ministers and government departments be required to substantively respond to coronial recommendations within three months; that the Coroner’s powers to follow up on government and institutional responses to recommendations be expanded; and that a database be established to monitor implementation of all coronial recommendations.

The ALS is also calling for funding to be increased to the Coroner’s Court, reducing extensive delays between deaths and inquests.

“Danny Whitton’s family were made to wait six years for their day in court, only to watch several witnesses say they couldn’t recall what happened in Danny’s final days. It was another six years of their lives in which they didn’t have answers and couldn’t reach any kind of closure. They will never have many of the answers they sought,” Ms Crellin said.

“The families we work with are so resilient, but the coronial process re-traumatises many people rather than offering healing. People go to the Coroner’s Court hoping to honour their loved one’s death by preventing it from happening to anyone else, then they are left watching as more Aboriginal people die in similar circumstances,” Ms Crellin said.

Eleven Aboriginal people have died in prisons and police operations across NSW this year. Nationwide, more than 480 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have died in such circumstances since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.




Media contact: Alyssa Robinson - 0427 346 017 - [email protected] 


The ALS’ submission to the Inquiry into the Coronial Jurisdiction in New South Wales can be found here: https://www.parliament.nsw.gov.au/lcdocs/submissions/73808/0036%20Aboriginal%20Legal%20Service%20(NSW%20ACT)%20Ltd.pdf


Coronial findings into the death of Danny Whitton can be found here: https://coroners.nsw.gov.au/coroners-court/download.html/documents/findings/2021/Inquest_into_the_death_of_Danny_Whitton.pdf

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