Two Indigenous custody deaths in NSW

Greens MP David Shoebridge says the public should have been notified about two deaths in custody.
Greens MP David Shoebridge says the public should have been notified about two deaths in custody.

Two Indigenous people have died in custody in NSW in the past week, but the deaths only came to light when a bureaucrat was questioned in a parliamentary hearing.

An Indigenous man in his mid-30s died last Tuesday at Long Bay Hospital, which treats NSW prisoners.

Authorities believe his death was "natural" and that he had "multiple" medical issues.

"It was identified by Health and by our staff supervising him when he actually was unresponsive and then obviously support was immediately provided," Corrective Services NSW Commissioner Peter Severin told a Budget Estimates session on Tuesday.

An Indigenous woman in her mid-50s died in her cell at Silverwater Women's Prison three days later.

Mr Severin said it's believed she took her own life.

Both deaths will be referred to the coroner.

The NSW government did not notify the public or the media of the deaths, with the latter only revealed during questioning at Budget Estimates by Greens MP David Shoebridge.

The government does not publicise deaths in custody, Mr Severin said.

It is "not appropriate" to advise the public of deaths without any detail and "cause a lot of anger, a lot of angst and a lot of grief", he said.

"We won't put public statements out. That is not in any way to suggest that we are not 100 pre cent accountable," Mr Severin said.

The government does inform the Aboriginal Legal Service and Department of Aboriginal Affairs of Indigenous deaths in custody, Mr Severin said.

Mr Shoebridge criticised the failure to notify the public.

"Two First Nations deaths in a single week is devastating and the government's new policy of secrecy only adds to the growing concern about First Nations deaths in custody," he said in a statement.

"The government's response to the Black Lives Matter movement has not been to address deaths in custody but to hide them from public scrutiny."

The woman was held in a cell with hanging points after a self-harm risk assessment did not identify her as high risk.

Mr Severin said that if prisoners are identified as high-risk they are not held alone in cells with hanging points.

He conceded there was no dedicated budget for removing ligature points, but said a scheme to remove them is funded through a minor works program.

Hanging points were identified as a risk in the 1991 report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths In Custody.

Mr Shoebridge said he understood making changes to the prison system takes time but that it was "inconceivable" that hanging points had not yet been removed from all cells.

"Now thirty years after the Royal Commission it is astounding that First Nations inmates are being placed in cells with known hanging points," Mr Shoebridge said.

Of the 24 deaths in custody in NSW since July 1, 2020, four were Indigenous. Three of the 24 were categorised as unnatural.

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Australian Associated Press