The suicide of Ricky Lee Cound in a prison south-east of Perth has sparked a fresh campaign for the recognition of sovereign rights and government accountability for Indigenous deaths in custody. By Jesse Noakes.
The death of Ricky Lee Cound
Content warning: This piece contains the names of Aboriginal people who are deceased.
In the video a woman in a black mask is walking across tarmac, speaking into the camera. There are police vans and a huddle of officers ahead. Past them, a family group is massed, some holding framed photographs.
“Here we are, leaving Hakea Prison,” says the narrator, who is Western Australian Greens senator and Yamatji Noongar woman Dorinda Cox. Further behind her is another First Nations senator, Lidia Thorpe, filming on her phone as she leaves the prison while a couple of prison guards film her back as they follow her out.
A desperate voice calls out: “Why couldn’t you have the recorder on my son? Why didn’t you have that recording my son?”
Barely a week earlier, a 22-year-old Noongar man took his own life at this prison, the fifth Aboriginal death in custody this year. The young man’s mother and other family members have joined the senators at the prison on this day.
“The pain of our people,” says Thorpe into the camera. “We have had enough … Two Blak senators had the police called on them to leave this prison.”
The two federal politicians will later insist they had agreed to meet with the prison’s superintendent, only to have their meeting cancelled when they’d already been shown to his office. They will allege they were held in the prison for more than an hour before being escorted out, both claims disputed by the WA Department of Justice.
“Why is this happening?” Cox asks the camera. “Why is this still happening in my state of Western Australia?”
Laura Cound describes her son, Ricky Lee, as a leader and a role model. “He was a lovely boy. He was a lovely person, he had respect, he walked with his head up high. He would help any stranger.”
A premature baby, Ricky Lee became stuck in a cycle of reoffending as a teenager, in and out of Banksia Hill Juvenile Detention Centre and then Perth’s adult prisons. “He hadn’t had a birthday on the outside since he was 14,” says his girlfriend, Bethany McShane, but she says after receiving a three-year sentence last November, he became serious about turning his life around.
“He was talking about being a youth worker, and I could tell by the tone of his voice he meant it,” agrees Ricky Lee’s sister, sitting with other family in the front yard of Laura’s house in Perth’s southern suburbs.
It was here, just before 3am on the last Saturday in March, that Laura received the news her son had died in a hospital minutes up the road, after he was found unresponsive in his solitary confinement cell that evening. Two weeks earlier, Laura says she contacted the prison via the Aboriginal Visitors Scheme with concerns for her son’s wellbeing. He had been transferred to Hakea weeks earlier from another prison in Perth, where riots had broken out over what inmates described as inadequate protection from Covid-19 outbreaks.
Gerry Georgatos is an advocate supporting the family, and lead WA senate candidate for the Social Justice Independents. “This is purely about government,” he says. “Government is the only context. This is a government service prison … Government are responsible for them. So what can be layered within them, in terms of the restorative, therapeutic, transformational content, is only the remit of government.”
Georgatos is campaigning to introduce a federal human rights act, which he says would guarantee rudimentary rights such as child welfare and education that the Australian government would have to fund. “And that may sound costly, but it isn’t, because of social returns across the board,” he says. “We should be looking at the burdens that we actually have in health, and education, which is the most protective factor to actually reduce reoffending.”
Last year, Georgatos and his colleagues from the National Suicide Prevention and Trauma Recovery Project delivered an intensive support program inside Acacia Prison in Perth, which he says dramatically reduced self-harm among prisoners. “We worked substantively with them in restorative approaches,” he says. “We did the mentoring, the counselling, we saw them on a very regular basis, we built relationships.”
In the year prior to their program, he says, there were three suicides in the prison. There were none during the nine months they worked there. “We had an open-door policy and we rolled our way. If someone wanted a hug, we gave them a hug. If someone wanted a handshake, we gave them a handshake.”
The WA Department of Justice says the program concluded in June 2021 when Serco introduced new services focused on supporting Aboriginal prisoners with enhanced staffing and participation by community partners.
“Incidences of attempted suicide and serious self-harm recorded at Acacia in 2020-21 were the same as the year before and are lower for this financial year to date,” a Justice Department spokesperson said.
Laura believes that if she could have spoken with her son, it would have prevented his death. “If he’d have heard my voice, my boy would be here. He needed to hear me – but he didn’t. Listening to my voice would have made him happy.”
The family emphasise that better access to prisoners and more flexible visits would protect prisoners’ mental health, while more Aboriginal workers and support inside jails would provide cultural protection.
Another, less proximate cause identified by Laura and her family was a lack of support to break the cycle and keep her son out of prison. She refers to the repeated occasions she sought help to connect him with drug and alcohol counselling only to be told that, as an adult, he needed to refer himself.
“Don’t tell an Aboriginal person they need to put their name down on a list, because you’ll never see them again,” she says. “The support needs to be right there.” Beatrice Christian agrees. A decade ago, she lost a stepson in custody in Perth and now she has grave fears for another son who has recently been released. “My priority was as soon as he gets out, within the first week, to help me get his mental health diagnosed properly, so he can get on medication, so it stops the anxiety and panic attacks.”
Beatrice believes that stability is missing for those released from prison: mental health support, housing, psychosocial programs on Country. “Heal them by showing them what a different kind of lifestyle is, a proper, happy, fulfilled and joyful life. And by helping them to spiritually connect with their land and their ancestors – that sort of thing.”
Days after Ricky Lee Cound’s death, Lidia Thorpe introduced a private senator’s bill that would compel the federal government to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). Thorpe says this is the best mechanism through which First Nations people can enact their sovereign rights.
“The UNDRIP sets the minimum standards for the survival, dignity and wellbeing of First Nations people,” Thorpe says. “First Nations people dying preventable deaths in police custody does not uphold these standards.”
She says that other necessary measures include the full implementation of the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture (OPCAT) and the full implementation of all of the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. “Without accountability, we will not stop these deaths from occurring.”
The day after Thorpe visited Hakea, a rally was held on the steps of WA Parliament to launch a campaign calling for a ban on all-white juries for trials involving Aboriginal deaths in custody. It follows recent high-profile murder trials in WA and the Northern Territory, in which white police officers were acquitted by juries without any Aboriginal members.
“In a fair and open society, it cannot be tolerated,” said Desmond Blurton-Cuiamara, the deputy chairperson of the Deaths in Custody Watch Committee WA. “All-white juries are racist, unjust and unfair to First Nations people. If [authorities] use lethal force, they need to be held accountable. Because it’s murder.”
The Saturday Paper has seen correspondence from the Deaths in Custody Watch Committee, sent to the WA attorney-general, John Quigley, in late March, requesting a meeting to discuss their campaign. Quigley’s office declined to answer questions about the attorney-general’s response. A spokesperson did add that “the Department of Justice is exploring the issue of jury selection”.
Blurton-Cuiamara has also presented a brief to the Law Society of Western Australia.
Two weeks ago, Fremantle Cemetery was packed for Ricky Lee Cound’s funeral. “It was huge,” his mother says. “Because he had respect. He was loved. He touched many hearts.” Bethany smiles slightly and agrees: “He would have loved it.”
Laura mourns not just her son but the structural oppression that led to his death. “We are the rightful owners of this place here,” she says. “We are robbed for the land. They stole the people and put them in missions. And now they’re locking our kids up in jails and watching them kill themselves. It hurts. It hurts. It really hurts. They should be held accountable.”
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 14, 2022 as "The death of Ricky Lee Cound".
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