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'Missed opportunities' in Aboriginal death in custody

Neve Brissenden -

In the main room of a primary school in a remote Northern Territory community, a painted buffalo skull sits idle, watching over the scurrying students.

The sculpture serves as a reminder of the artist behind it, a quiet and complex Jawoyn man, with a violent streak lending to a long criminal history and a revolving prison door.

Unbeknownst to his family, Mr Dooley, a 37-year-old father, was in cardiac arrest for two days while being held in a Darwin prison before his death in October 2022.

An inquest into his death has heard there were "missed opportunities" by corrections and health services that may have avoided his death.

The painted buffalo skull serves as a reminder of the artist behind it. (HANDOUT/SUPPLIED)

"He died of a heart attack at a very young age ... what institutional factors limited Mr Dooley's access to appropriate carceral healthcare?" counsel assisting Sandra Wendlandt told the inquest on Monday.

At the time of his death, Mr Dooley was serving a six-month prison sentence for assaulting his former partner by pulling her hair and throwing her to the ground.

"While he was a prisoner, it was his liberty that had been taken for six months, of course, not his personhood," Ms Wendlandt reminded the court.

He also had a history of chronic heart problems and was diagnosed with high cholesterol and hyperlipidaemia while in custody in 2014.

In June 2022, he underwent an initial custody health screen where his heart issues were noted, though he was cleared to work in the prison laundry.

The medical exam was required to have a five-day turnaround, though his results were not discussed with him until August and medication was not received until September.

On September 13, Mr Dooley underwent a routine electrocardiogram (ECG) which produced abnormal results.

A prison doctor requested a recall for the following day and recommended a cardiologist referral.

The administrative entries were made by a nurse but the high-priority recall box was not ticked.

Mr Dooley was not recalled to the medical clinic until September 26, but on September 25 he began feeling dizzy and could not stand.

He was told to drink water and rest.

"You will hear (about) this exchange, but what is clear is that Mr Dooley himself received no direct medical attention that day," Ms Wendlandt said.

Mr Dooley underwent surgery, revealing he had been in cardiac arrest for more than 48 hours. (Esther Linder/AAP PHOTOS)

He returned the following day to the medical clinic for his recall and a doctor concluded he had a combination of gastro and dehydration.

"It would appear his symptoms were underestimated," Ms Wendlandt told the coroner.

"For reasons Your Honour will hopefully learn, a full set of observations was not completed by the doctor at that time."

Three hours after he was admitted, an ambulance was called after he complained of breathing issues.

Mr Dooley underwent surgery at Royal Darwin Hospital, revealing he had been in cardiac arrest for more than 48 hours.

After a failed attempt at heart surgery in Adelaide, he was flown back to Darwin and died on October 22 surrounded by family.

"Prisoners are of course entitled to receive the same quality of care as anyone else in the community, and those who are in the employ of the state have a duty of care to ensure it is carried out," Ms Wendlandt said.

She said the inquest would delve into the circumstances of Mr Dooley's death.

"What were the earlier intervention opportunities, and if they had not been missed, could he still be alive?"

Family members, doctors, a cardiology expert and representatives from NT Health and Corrections will give evidence over three days.

"Mr Dooley's passing is painfully another Aboriginal death in custody in the NT," Ms Wendlandt said.

"This independent investigation ... ensures the justice system rigorously engages its duty of care to prisoners, who are still people, with families and communities and a voice."

The inquest continues on Wednesday.

13YARN 13 92 76

Aboriginal Counselling Services 0410 539 905

1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732)

Neve Brissenden - AAP

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