The South Australian Department for Corrective Services has been ordered to apologise to the family of an Aboriginal man who died in custody in 2016, after a report by the state ombudsman found there were “serious shortcomings” in the department’s conduct.
Wayne Fella Morrison died in Royal Adelaide Hospital on 26 September 2016, after being restrained by 14 guards in an incident at Yatala prison and spending three days in a coma. He was on remand and had never been to prison before.
The coronial inquiry has been delayed by legal challenges from prison guards, who failed in their bid to have the coroner removed and in claiming privilege against giving evidence. It has now been delayed until 2021.
The coronial inquiry has already heard that Morrison was restrained and placed in a spit-hood before being carried face-down to a prison van, accompanied by seven guards, for a short drive to another prison block.
There is no CCTV or other recordings of what took place in the van. When it arrived at the other prison block, Morrison was unresponsive and prison guards began CPR.
Morrison was taken to hospital by ambulance but his family were not told which hospital he had been sent to, or what had happened to him, until hours later.
Ombudsman Wayne Lines said he had a number of “serious criticisms of the department, saying “the situation could have been better handled”.
Lines said that while the conduct of the guards and the treatment of Morrison before his death were matters for the coroner, he had conducted an own-motion inquiry to address administrative issues. The 110-page report was released on Thursday.
He criticised the decision to transport Morrison a relatively short distance in a prison van with no video recording equipment immediately after a use of force incident.
He made 17 recommendations, including that the department update its own procedures to “clearly provide that where a van with recording capacity is not available, the transport must be recorded by hand held camera or alternative means of transport must be arranged, and that transport be appropriately recorded at all times”.
“By failing to record meaningful footage of Mr Morrison’s restraint by correctional officers and transport by van, the department acted in a manner that was wrong,” he said.
He also recommended prison guards wear body cameras at all times.
Line said the department should apologise to Morrison’s family, namely his mother Caroline Andersen and sibling Latoya Rule, for failing to properly identify him as an “at risk” prisoner upon admission to prison and monitoring his welfare accordingly; for failing provide them with the appropriate information and support; and for failing to provide them with sufficient access to information about his condition on the day he was taken to hospital.
He said the failure to provide the family with sufficient information and support was wrong, and that the department acted “unreasonably” and “wrongly” in failing to provide them with access to him at the time of his death.
He also found the department had broken the law in failing to maintain appropriate prison records.
Andersen thanked Lines for investigating her son’s death, but said she was still left without answers over his death nearly four years ago.
“I still have no clear answers to what happened to my son in the back of that prison van,” she said. “With all the delays in getting to the bottom of my son’s death some changes are required to the law to ensure that parents like me get answers sooner.”
Andersen said an apology from the department was “not enough” but was “the beginning of acknowledging that they had a duty to care for my son and that they did wrong to him. As a mum, I want to know why these guards are still working inside the prison system when there are so many unanswered questions.”