*This article contains photographs of an Aboriginal person who has passed away*
The coronial inquest into the death of Aboriginal man Danny Whitton has begun this week as his family demands justice.
The 25-year-old Wonnarua man died in a Sydney hospital after an accidental drug overdose at Junee Correctional Centre.
The inquest is set to examine the circumstances where Mr Whitton was able to access a quantity of paracetamol or buprenorphine inside custody.
Junee Correctional Centre is a private prison, owned and operated by GEO Group Australia.
Denied access to medication, family says
According to Mr Whitton’s family, he was denied the appropriate medication of methadone while in Junee.
“The people in charge at Junee Correctional Centre should have known this would deteriorate his physical and mental health and lead him to source relief wherever he could,” Mr Whitton’s parents stated.
On 5 November 2015, Mr Whitton was taken to Junee Correctional Centres medical unit. Two days later he was found with limited consciousness and unable to control his movements.
Five hours after this discovery, an ambulance took him to Wagga Wagga Base Hospital and where the diagnosis was liver failure.
Mr Whitton was then airlifted to Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney where he later passed.
Mr Whitton’s family notes that there was evidence of the illness days prior to being taken to the hospital.
“We have evidence from other men in the prison that as early as 5 November 2015, Danny’s skin was yellow and he was ‘pissing blood’, vomiting and in pain. Why did correctional staff wait another two days before taking him to hospital? Would he still be alive if he’d been taken sooner?” they said.
“I never got a phone call from Corrective Services”
The inquest will also shed light on the communication between Junee Corrective Services and Mr Whitton’s family.
“I didn’t even know my son was sick until Wagga Wagga Base Hospital contacted me. By that stage, Danny’s airlift to Sydney was already being arranged. I never got a phone call from Corrective Services NSW or Junee Correctional Centre,” Mr Whitton’s mother said.
Mr Whitton’s mother recalls one particularly hostile moment the day before her son died.
“I didn’t have any ID on me. I was very distressed. I told them I’m his mother, and one of them said, ‘You could be anyone saying you’re his mother,’” she said.
On the day of his death, his mother attempted to comfort her son.
“As I went to get on the bed, the officer told me I couldn’t touch Danny. He said because Danny would need an autopsy, touching him would be ‘tampering with evidence’,” she said.
“He said, ‘He is still Corrective Services property’”
“It broke my heart.”
“The system needs to change. It needs to treat people as human beings, not as addicts or state property.”
Prisons have a duty of care
CEO of Aboriginal Legal Service NSW/ACT Karly Warner is representing the family in the inquest.
“Prisons have a duty of care to the people inside. The circumstances behind Danny Whitton’s death required urgent investigation and action to prevent further loss of life, yet it’s taken five years to get to an inquest,” she said.
“What does this say about the value placed on Aboriginal lives and the lives of those recovering from addiction?”
The inquest is scheduled to take place from February 22 to February 26, 2021.