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As an inquest into the death in custody of Wayne Fella Morrison continues, his family hopes for justice while the South Australian government cuts funding to key Aboriginal legal services. By Royce Kurmelovs.

Inquest on Wayne Fella Morrison

Latoya Rule, the sister of Wayne Fella Morrison, outside the Magistrates’ Court in Adelaide.
Credit: AAP Image / David Mariuz

In a hallway of Adelaide’s Yatala Labour Prison, a group is huddled over a figure lying on the ground. Soon, others come running. Before long, the narrow hallway is crammed with people, looking on.

Each time this video is played, it is possible to make out something new. As they wrestle to restrain the man on the floor, the 12 guards ripple as though a single mass. But then there’s this rotating gesture one makes with his hand as he signals to others that they should turn the prisoner on the floor onto his stomach. Another guard appears to step on something that cannot be seen – an arm maybe – and stumbles before propping up a nearby fridge to keep it from toppling onto the tussle.

Soon the man’s hands are cuffed behind his back and his legs are in flexicuffs. A spit mask is handed through a procession of guards before it passes out of sight. The frame cuts to another camera. A group of guards is carrying the man in a prone position. At the elevator, they stop to readjust the mask.

Outside, another camera shows figures moving around a van. After that, there’s nothing but external shots of the van for three-and-a-half minutes. Four guards accompanied the man on his way to YLP’s notorious G Division but there is no internal CCTV available. Instead, the video cuts again, this time to the van backing up to the G Division docking door, while a group of men waits. Two guards pull the prisoner – who had been lying face down on the floor of the van – out its back door.

They soon recognise something is wrong. But two-and-a-half minutes go by before anyone can be seen starting CPR. By the time they do, it’s too late, the man lying on the ground is already slipping away. Three days later, at 3.50am on September 26, 2016, at Royal Adelaide Hospital, he will die.

Caroline Andersen refuses to watch this footage. Whenever the lawyers play it for a fresh witness – three times a day on the ambitious schedule of the coronial inquest into the death in custody of Wayne Fella Morrison – she leaves the courtroom.

It may have been two years since her son’s death but it’s only now, in the past month, that his family are learning how the 29-year-old Wiradjuri, Kookatha and Wirangu man died. So far, the inquest has heard from some of the 48 guards and prison staff involved. Evidence given to date has exposed a raft of issues including a lack of training among prison guards in restraint practices, a failure to follow basic procedures and a failure to identify the physical or mental health risks associated with the prisoner or his restraint.

Away from Adelaide’s Coroners Court, Andersen explains that she wears a knotted string anklet, which used to belong to her son, around her wrist. It helps with the anxiety, she says. She fiddles with the green string when she thinks about him or grows nervous, which happens often.

“We know in Wayne’s case, every level of the system failed him,” she says. “And it’s still failing him. How on earth have we gotten this far, how on earth where we’ve gotten into this position where we think it’s okay to be working in a situation where something terrible happens, and someone loses their life and you, as a worker, think it’s okay to withhold information?”

With more than 400 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander deaths in custody nationally since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody handed down its findings in 1991, Morrison is not alone.

“It was the beginning of Wayne’s death when he got arrested,” says Morrison’s sister Latoya Rule. “He could have died at any stage from the time he was arrested. At any single stage. It’s not an issue that can be individualised to what happens at Yatala. It’s structural.”

Morrison’s family say he had no prior contact with police. At the time of his death, he was being held on remand and did not think he’d be in custody long – telling guards he expected to be released on home detention after a scheduled court appearance by video link to the Elizabeth Magistrates’ Court later that day.

Things wouldn’t turn out that way, though. The coroner has heard that, on the morning of his scheduled court appearance, an altercation erupted between Morrison and two guards in his holding cell. In their evidence, guards have described that initial assault as sudden, unprovoked and violent, which left three guards injured. Morrison, they say, was “big and strong”.

In his opening address, counsel assisting the coroner, Anthony Crocker, said that positional asphyxia – where the way that a person is restrained stops them from breathing – was a contributing factor in Morrison’s death. Much of the inquest has focused on the overwhelming use of force during the restraint, which the family say left Morrison’s body black and blue, and the use of a spit mask.

So far, none of the guards who have given evidence had ever received specific training regarding positional asphyxia. In one exchange, former prison guard Steve Connor, who was involved both in the restraint and attempt to resuscitate Morrison, was asked whether a spit hood fitted tightly around the neck of the person wearing it. He said he couldn’t be sure. Counsel representing the family of Morrison, Claire O’Connor, SC, asked Connor whether he had ever tried one on.

“Why would I put a spit hood on my own head?” he replied.

What happened in the back of the van during the trip to G Division is a separate issue. The four guards involved in the trip have refused to give statements and are yet to appear at the inquiry. They are expected to do so in December.

Meanwhile, the proceedings have focused on how prison staff reacted to the discovery that “something was wrong” as Morrison was removed from the van. As seconds ticked away, it took Brenton Warner, another guard from another unit, to intervene and begin mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Warner told the court he was shaken as he looked into Morrison’s eyes while he used a mouth-to-mouth mask to try to get Morrison breathing.

Questioned about the two-and-a-half-minute delay in performing CPR, Gordon Burnell, G Division’s unit supervisor on the day, told the court that guards were “cautious” about interacting with Morrison because of the initial assault. During cross-examination, Burnell said he did not call for an ambulance despite the clear medical emergency, instead choosing to call a “Code Black”.

Within Yatala Labour Prison, a “Code Black” signals that a major security or health incident is in progress, which requires all available staff to attend. When asked why he didn’t specifically call for an ambulance, Burnell said he believed that in a prison environment “different rules apply” and that he assumed an ambulance would be called as part of the code.

Among other guards to give evidence was Ronald Joseph, who served as supervisor in the holding cells where Morrison was first restrained and was a bystander during the attempts at resuscitation. When challenged over his actions that day, Joseph told the coroner that although he may have handled the situation differently “in hindsight”, he did not believe that starting CPR earlier would have “changed the outcome”.

“I’ve got no problem with the way I behaved on that day,” he said.

Meanwhile, Detective Sergeant Lisa Pettinau, who led the initial police investigation at YLP, told the court she felt “frustrated” in her efforts to learn what happened. Pettinau said that a series of delays and procedural roadblocks meant witnesses were not kept separate or prevented from leaving, evidence was not retained, and crime scenes weren’t sealed.

In one example, Pettinau described how the prison transport van was put straight back into use after Morrison was taken to hospital and she was not notified about the seriousness of his condition until the end of her shift. Until news came through that Morrison was in a coma, Pettinau said she had been working on the understanding that she was investigating the initial assault on prison guards.

“It was frustrating, yes. I expected a more collaborative approach,” she said.

The inquest into Wayne Morrison’s death continues and is expected to run into December, but so far it has provided a unique window into the operation of the South Australian prison system.

It is not the first time Yatala Labour Prison has been at the centre of controversy involving the treatment of potentially vulnerable Indigenous prisoners. From 2011–12, Jacqueline Davies, a 39-year-old Aboriginal woman with spina bifida, spent eight months shackled to a bed for 22 hours a day. She had been refused by the then corrections minister access to James Nash House, a mental health facility, despite 30 attempts at self-harm or suicide. Instead, staff at the prison were left to manage Davies’ condition. They dealt with the situation by transferring her to G Division until she was finally admitted to a mental health facility.

Since Morrison’s death, it is understood that there have been three additional Aboriginal deaths in custody in South Australian prisons.

The first involved a 50-year-old man who died during an arrest that took place in July 2017. The man was handcuffed and made to lie in a prone position on the ground outside his home in Parafield Gardens in Adelaide’s north while being denied his heart medication. In August the same year, a 47-year-old man who suffered from chronic health issues caused by alcoholism and diabetes died in a police observation cell. Neither of the deaths have had dates set for inquests. The details of the third death remain unknown.

Across the country, there are at least three other inquests into Aboriginal deaths in custody pending or in progress, with several more yet to be listed. Earlier this month, news broke that two Aboriginal boys drowned in Perth’s Swan River during a police chase. Many, however, go unreported.

Caroline Andersen and Latoya Rule are already thinking ahead to what comes after the inquest into Morrison’s death. Both are sceptical about the prospect of real, meaningful change – just recently, budget cuts by the SA government have slashed key Aboriginal legal services and there are plans to privatise parts of the state’s prison system. Without change, though, Andersen and Rule fear that Wayne Fella Morrison will become just another statistic.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 29, 2018 as "Restraint of rights". Subscribe here.

Royce Kurmelovs
is an Adelaide-based freelance journalist and author.