More than four months since the death in custody of an Indigenous man, his family awaits details from correctional services of how it happened. By John Power.

Wayne Morrison's family questions secrecy over his death

An Adelaide rally against Aboriginal deaths in custody held on October 22.
An Adelaide rally against Aboriginal deaths in custody held on October 22.

On the morning of September 23 last year, Latoya Rule and her family were waiting at Elizabeth Magistrates Court north of Adelaide for her brother to appear via video link when a man rushed in with a handwritten note for the magistrate.

The magistrate looked puzzled as to what the piece of paper meant, but it was obvious something had gone wrong. Wayne Morrison, a 29-year-old Aboriginal man and father to a little girl, wouldn’t be appearing for his home detention bail application as planned. Unable or unwilling to say much more, the magistrate advised the family to contact Yatala Labour Prison, where Morrison had been on remand for the previous six days.

It was the beginning of an anguished struggle by the family against an encompassing edifice of secrecy. As they waited in court that day, Morrison lay seriously injured. In three days, he would be dead. His family would spend that first day frantically searching for answers as to their loved one’s situation – only to face even greater questions in the months ahead.

For hours after Morrison was left fighting for his life following an altercation with prison guards, authorities refused to tell the family anything of what happened, his condition or his location, Latoya Rule told The Saturday Paper. When the family finally learnt he had been admitted to hospital, where his life support was eventually switched off, they were obstructed in their efforts to see him and ultimately say goodbye, she said.

“We didn’t actually find out where Wayne was at all by any professional person,” said Rule, a social work student at Flinders University. “So we never to this day have received a call to let us know that Wayne was injured, that Wayne had an altercation, nothing.”

Anxious after her brother’s failure to appear in court, Rule said she repeatedly called Yatala for some indication of what had happened, only to be rebuffed.

“I was told to call back later, that they were all in a meeting and that nobody could talk to me at the time,” she said.

It was about 4pm before the family found out Morrison had been taken to the Royal Adelaide Hospital, almost five hours after the altercation. According to Rule, they only learnt of his location because of an unauthorised tipoff from a hospital worker known to the family. When the family arrived, hospital staff denied Morrison was there, Rule said. She told The Saturday Paper she later confronted them over the deception after overhearing nurses discussing her brother and how he had been admitted under a false name.

“I then went back to the front office in the triage and said, ‘Where’s my brother? We know he’s here now, you’ve changed his name,’ ” Rule said. “We were then met with security officers, taken outside and had to wait there. We then waited for hours before we got clearance to even see him.”

It would reportedly be some 12 hours before the family was permitted to see Morrison. By then, it was about 11pm. But the alleged indignities didn’t stop with this delay.

“Only two of us were allowed in at any time. So we couldn’t all go in together and embrace Wayne,” Rule said.

“We were checked and searched, we weren’t allowed any bags, any materials into the room. So we were treated as suspects. We were treated as if we were prisoners and he was still a remandee. And they let us know he was a remandee until the moment he passed away.”

The reported decision of the South Australian Department for Correctional Services to post two corrections officers outside Morrison’s room, before private security took over after the first day, further upset the family.

“They know who we are, everything about us, simply because they were able to be there,” Rule said. “And it makes me scared to think that any time that we left the room they could have done anything to Wayne as well.”

Under an SA Health policy directive, a Department for Correctional Services supervising officer is responsible “at all times” for the security of a prisoner who is admitted to hospital and should be present during “an examination or consultation”. The directive also states that all visits must be approved by the general manager of the prison.

“He wasn’t able to take a breath himself,” Rule said, “and there were still corrections outside his room, and searching us before we went in as if we were going to escape with this prisoner and he’s going to run out with us and get in our car.”

The Royal Adelaide Hospital forwarded a list of questions from The Saturday Paper to the Department for Correctional Services, which declined to comment on the family’s treatment, citing multiple ongoing investigations.

Spokeswoman Mercedes Whibley said the Department for Correctional Services was “committed to ensuring that prisoners are treated in a safe, secure and humane manner, and that the duty of care to prisoners is fulfilled by providing prisoner access to appropriate medical care and treatment”.

The exact circumstances of Morrison’s death, currently the subject of separate police, coronial, corrections and parliamentary investigations, remain murky more than four months on.

David Brown, the corrections chief executive, told media on September 24 that Morrison had suffered a “medical emergency” after corrections officers brought him “under control” in response to him assaulting staff. Brown said five prison staff were treated for injuries, including two for facial fractures. On the same day, the SA Ambulance Service reported transferring a man who’d suffered a cardiac arrest to hospital, along with two others nursing minor injuries. At the time, Brown declined to confirm if Morrison had suffered a heart attack or provide details of either the cause of the medical emergency or the circumstances of the altercation.

“What I can say is that I personally, and the officers of my department, understand and take very seriously our responsibilities where a use of force is required to bring a dangerous situation under control,” said Brown.

Morrison had been facing several charges, including rape and criminal trespassing, prior to his expected release on bail, but had no convictions and had never been in prison before. By the account of his family, he was a peaceful, nonviolent person. Art and music were his passions, along with fishing at the seaside Adelaide suburb of St Kilda.

“It doesn’t matter at the end of the day what the young lad went into prison for,” said Tauto Sansbury, a Narungga elder who has spent years working on the issue of Indigenous deaths in custody in South Australia. “You don’t go into prison to come out dead.”

Sansbury told The Saturday Paper he had witnessed the hospital’s “unnecessary” obstruction of the family firsthand and was himself denied the chance to see Morrison.

“I’ve seen it before,” he said. “I’ve seen it over and over. It doesn’t matter what they are doing: as an Aboriginal person, whether it’s a death in custody, anything concerning an arrest – everything is pushed aside.”

Latoya Rule sees her brother’s death as suspicious. He was completely unrecognisable in his hospital bed, she said, bruised from head to torso, with a hugely swollen neck and damaged eye.

“They wouldn’t tell us the full extent of the medical report, of what they think happened,” she recalled of the attending doctors. “But they told us they’d be very thorough with what they write and that they will write that the markings on his body don’t have anything to do with him having a heart attack.”

While still searching for answers, Rule said she would reserve judgement about what happened to her brother until the various investigations ran their course. But she couldn’t accept the treatment of her family as they tried to account for their loved one on the day of an incident that would ultimately cost Morrison his life.

“Any other person in society, their next of kin is immediately contacted,” Rule said. “But because it’s an Aboriginal prisoner, it’s like we’re not given the same courtesy to know.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 4, 2017 as "Family questions".

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