Please note: This story contains reference to someone who has died.
An inquest into the 2015 death in custody of Aboriginal man Danny Whitton began on Monday, with both the family and Aboriginal Legal Service demanding justice for the young man.
The inquest will investigate the death of the 25-year-old Wonnarua man, who died in custody on November 9, 2015 after an accidental drug overdose at Junee Correctional Centre.
The inquest is set to investigate the circumstances in which Whitton accessed a quantity of paracetamol or buprenorphine at the prison, currently privately operated by GEO Group Australia.
“Danny relied on methadone while living in the community, but he was denied access to appropriate medication in prison,” said Whitton’s parents, Kylie Knight and Darren Whitton.
“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.
“Wouldn’t they have known drugs were moving through the prison?”
On November 5, 2015 Whitton was taken to Junee Correctional Centre’s medical unit. Two days later correctional staff found him with limited consciousness and unable to control his movements.
Five hours after being found Whitton was taken to Wagga Wagga Base Hospital via ambulance and was diagnosed with liver failure.
Whitton was airlifted to Royal Prince Alfred Hospital (RPA) in Sydney where he later passed away.
Whitton’s parents note there is evidence that Whitton was severely ill previous to being taken to 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.
The inquest will also hear concerns relating to the treatment of Whitton’s family during his last few days by both correctional and hospital staff.
“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,” Knight said.
Staff at RPA did not provide Whitton a private room and correctional staff guarding Whitton at night were allegedly hostile to his family.
Knight 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, Knight tried 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’. He said, ‘He is still Corrective Services property’,” she said.
“It broke my heart.”
“The system needs to change. It needs to treat people as human beings, not as addicts or state property.”
Knight is being represented by the Aboriginal Legal Service NSW/ACT who is pushing for accountability and justice for the family.
“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,” said Karly Warner, CEO of the Aboriginal Legal Service NSW/ACT.
“What does this say about the value placed on Aboriginal lives and the lives of those recovering from addiction?”
Over 440 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have died in prisons and police custody since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.
“The majority of recommendations from that inquiry have still not been implemented,” Warner said.
“Kind, loving people like Danny Whitton’s family continue to be left with unimaginable and avoidable grief. We stand with them in their long quest for accountability and justice.”
Despite the circumstances around his death, Whitton is remembered as a kind man, doting father and talented athlete.
The inquest is scheduled to take place from February 22 to February 26.
By Rachael Knowles