In Australia, family of Aboriginal man who died in custody demands answers

Leetona Dungay: still waiting for answers. Photo by Charandev Singh.
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The family of David Dungay Jr will have to wait almost another year for answers as to why the 26-year-old Dunghutti, Aboriginal man died in custody. The two weeks set aside this July for the coronial inquiry was not enough time to hear the evidence. The hearing will resume in June 2019. David’s mother, Leetona Dungay, describes this wait as “devastating.” Dungay Jr died on 29 December 2015 in the mental health wing of Long Bay Jail just three weeks prior to his release from prison.

Testimony exposes brutal treatment. The courtroom heard the Immediate Action Team was called to perform a cell extraction when Dungay, who was a type two diabetic, refused to stop eating a packet of biscuits.

 A video recording played to the court depicts five officers storming the cell and restraining Dungay in the “prone position.” Dungay can be clearly seen in handcuffs, face down on the bed, and is heard screaming, “I can’t breathe” repeatedly. The footage shows staff forcibly removing Dungay from his cell, whilst he continues to repeat “I can’t breathe, please don’t” 12 times. An officer is heard responding, “If you stop spitting your blood, you might be alright.” Once removed from his cell, the officers held Dungay down, whilst he pleaded with them to let him breathe. An officer can be heard telling Dungay, “If you can talk, then you can breathe.” He is then injected with a powerful sedative, Midazolam, becomes unresponsive and stops breathing moments later. Midazolam is widely known as a sedative used in conjunction with other drugs as a lethal injection in state executions in the U.S.

During the inquiry, the inquest heard that subsequent resuscitation efforts by Justice Health staff were “incompatible with survival.” Medical experts assessing the evidence described multiple failings during the “prolonged” CPR attempts. There was a delay of eight minutes before medical staff provided “fundamental basic life support” coupled with a failure to remove a safety cap from the resuscitation suction device. As a result, whatever chance Mr Dungay had was lost by the inadequate and interrupted care he received from Justice Health,” the inquest heard. 

Commenting on the footage and medical evidence, physician Professor Anthony Brown told the inquest he believed Dungay suffered “asystole cardiac arrest” brought about by a lack of oxygen caused by how he was restrained and positioned. 

The inquest also heard that the prison officers had no training in “positional asphyxia” – a contributing factor in Dungay’s death. During the second week of the inquiry, a training course was recommended for officers to address the fatal risks of restraint and the signs and symptoms of positional asphyxia.   

Top: Building the resistance — a poster in Redfern. Photo by Alison Thorne. Bottom: Dungay family supporter, Maddy Leftwich.

Steadfast struggle. David Dungay’s death is a story all too familiar to those campaigning to end Aboriginal deaths in custody. Since the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, more than 407 further deaths have occurred. No police, prison or health officer has ever been convicted in relation to an Aboriginal death in custody.  Recent findings show that Aboriginal people are the single most incarcerated group of people in the world, and in turn have the highest rates of deaths in custody.

Leetona Dungay was joined by other members of David’s family, who travelled more than 400 kilometres from Kempsey to attend the inquest. David’s mother, supported by the family, has been leading the fight for justice for her son. The family are being supported by the Indigenous Social Justice Association (ISJA). 

Speaking to a rally in Kempsey on 9 June this year, Leetona spoke of the systemic structural violence facing Aboriginal people in Australia: “A lot of people don’t realise what they do to our young ones, they send them to their death… They’re killing our warriors. We’ve been living in poverty for years and we’re getting killed because our colour is black… But they can’t cover up, not anymore, because these footsteps are going to keep walking.” 

The opening day of the inquiry was also attended by a large group of supporters calling for “Justice for David.”

Hawk Newsome, the president of Black Lives Matter in Greater New York, was amongst them. Drawing on the clear parallels between Black deaths in the U.S. at the hands of the state, he compared Dungay’s death with that of Eric Garner, a Black man killed with impunity by police. Garner repeatedly used the same desperate words, “I can’t breathe.” Newsome addressed the crowd: “From First Nations, to the Blacks in my nation, it’s the same story. It is Black faces. It is Black deaths. And it is the same excuses coming from blue uniforms.  It’s the same excuses coming from the same system.” 

David’s death is another in a long line of Aboriginal deaths in custody, which include Veronica Baxter, TJ Hickey, Rebecca Maher, Eric Whittaker and Ms Dhu, to name just a few. 

Build a movement with solutions. Stop deaths in custody activists put forward a declaration to the New South Wales Parliament on 2 May 2018 to demand changes to the current police and prison system. One key demand is that Police and Prison Officers be held to account by the same laws as the rest of society. The significance of this is particularly relevant to the death of David Dungay: the cell in which David was restrained was cleared before being examined as a crime scene. When a death in custody occurs in NSW, it is not treated as a crime scene. In David’s case, all evidence, including his blood on the floor, was removed before an examination took place. Leetona Dungay, with the support of ISJA, is calling for David’s death to be treated and investigated as a homicide. 

Addressing the factors leading to the disproportionate incarceration of First Nations people is a key way to reduce Aboriginal deaths in custody. The parliamentary declaration also demands the abolition of the Suspect Target Management Plan. This is a list of young people the police deem to be “likely to commit future crime.” This program gives a green light to racial profiling. Police give “pro-active attention, including repeatedly detaining and searching” young people. More than half the children named are Aboriginal, with some as young as 10 years old.

To end deaths in custody, it is crucial to keep Aboriginal people out of the prison system in the first place. Although Aboriginal people make up just 3% of the Australian population, they account for 28% of people in prison. Juvenile justice data is even more shocking. Recent figures highlight that 48% of children in prison are Aboriginal, and in the Northern Territory, this figure increases to 100%. The family of David Dungay are concerned by the life-threatening risk every time an Aboriginal person is incarcerated. For First Nations people this fear is very real. Leetona Dungay spoke of the immense fear she felt when David was initially incarcerated, saying she knew he was “being sent to his death.” 

Explaining the growing rate of Aboriginal incarceration, Dr Joseph Pugliese, who works on the project Deathscapes: Mapping Race and Violence in Settler States, writes: “To create intergenerational trauma, you incarcerate the up and coming generation – you incarcerate the young men and women, you break up the families. This way you disintegrate and displace Indigenous families to enable the settler state to secure its illegal occupation of indigenous lands.”

On the final day scheduled for inquiry, there was disbelief and rage in the courtroom when the Deputy State Coroner announced it would be postponed for nearly a year. Paul Silva, David’s nephew, rose, angered by the outcome and declared, “In a year another Black person will be dead.” 

Having waited two-and-a-half years for the inquiry, hoping for justice, the family are now determined to use this delay to build more support for the campaign and ensure the shocking circumstances that led to David’s death are widely known and support for the demands of the movement grows.

When he died prematurely, David was just three weeks away from release. His mother knew of his post release plans and has shared that he hoped to become a pastor. When David’s property was released to the family, his poetry was amongst these belongings. In his words from prison, David writes, “I emerged like a butterfly, still breathing, still wandering.”

Madeleine is an activist with the Indigenous Social Justice Association. She travelled to Kempsey in June to join the family at a rally to demand an honest inquiry into the death of David Dungay Jr, and was present during the inquiry.

Get involved in the campaign. ISJA in Melbourne, which is planning a quiz night in early 2019 to benefit the Dungay family, meets on the first Thursday of every month, 6:30 pm at Solidarity Salon, 580 Sydney Road Brunswick. ISJA in Sydney continues to work directly with the Dungay family. Find news of their latest activities on Facebook.

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