South Australian authorities are under fire for their treatment of an indigenous prisoner who died while in their custody.
A judicial inquiry was opened to review the death of Wayne Fella Morrison, 29, an indigenous man of Pitjantjatjara and Wiradjuri ancestry, who died in 2016, three days after an altercation with prison guards.
That was the first time he had been arrested, and he had no other criminal record prior to 2016.
Anthony Crocker, the counsel assisting the coroner, told the court that Morrison “became violent towards prison staff” and “was restrained with handcuffs, flexicuffs, and a spit mask.”
But the footage shown in court demonstrated that the man was restrained by more than 15 officers.
At some point in the video, 16 officers crowded the hallway, making it impossible to see Morrison underneath them as he lied face-down.
After he was restrained, guards carried him outside where he was placed face-down again while still wearing the mask in the rear of a prison escort van. At least eight members of the prison staff entered the vehicle.
At the moment the van arrived at G Division of the Yatala prison, Crocker explained, “Morrison was found to be blue and unresponsive.”
“Precisely what occurred in the van is unknown as seven of the eight prison staff who accompanied Mr. Morrison on the journey have declined to provide police with statements,” Crocker said.
There were no surveillance cameras inside the van, but the journey didn’t last more than three minutes.
Upon arrival, the staff attempted to resuscitate Morrison, but the footage depicting this ordeal was deemed too sensitive and was not released to the court.
Latoya Rule, Morrison’s sister, once said her five-foot tall brother “was a non-violent fisherman and artist.” She told reporters that watching the footage was not an easy task.
“It was distressing to witness the footage today of the final moments of my brother’s time on remand and to count the number of correctional officers involved in his restraint and in the transport van,” she said.
Most importantly, she added, is that it was hard seeing her brother’s head being covered with a spit mask, much like the ones used in Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay prisons.
“It also saddens me to know that he was wearing a spithood at the time of his death — similar to that shown in the restraint of Dylan Voller in images that shocked Australia [from Don Dale prison in Darwin],” she said.
Morrison died just two months after images of 17-year-old Voller wearing a spithood shocked the country. The images were so difficult to bear that many Australian prisons banned the use of the mask, or at least heavily restricted its use.
Now that Morrison has become the latest victim of this torturous method of restricting prisoners, Rule said she hopes that the coroner will help people like her brother avoid a similar fate.
“Our family has placed our trust in the coroner to ensure that there is justice in this process, that those who are responsible for Wayne’s death are held accountable, and that reforms are implemented to ensure the future safety of all prisoners,” Rule said. “My heart cries out for just one more moment with my brother.”
This latest example of abuse targeting indigenous groups should not be ignored by Australian officials seeking to put an end to the country’s institutionalized racism.
Banner and thumbnail image credit: Reuters/Stephen Lam