'Monster's loophole' in NSW custody deaths

Solutions to justice problems need to come from Indigenous communities, a NSW inquiry has heard.
Solutions to justice problems need to come from Indigenous communities, a NSW inquiry has heard.

The father of an Indigenous man found to have hanged himself in his NSW prison cell in 2017 says the role of police and prison authorities in investigating Aboriginal deaths in custody is a "monster's loophole".

Tane Chatfield, 22, died in hospital two days after he was found hanging in his cell at Tamworth Correctional Centre on September 20, 2017.

He'd only been back in the prison for an hour after spending the night in Tamworth Base Hospital following multiple seizures in his cell.

A NSW coroner in August ruled Mr Chatfield's death a suicide, but was critical of the care provided to the Kamilaroi Gumbaynggirr Wakka Wakka man.

It was also critical of prison authorities' decision to place Mr Chatfield in a cell by himself, and its failure to remove potential hanging points.

Mr Chatfield's father Colin on Thursday told a NSW parliamentary inquiry into the over-representation of Indigenous people in custody that his family was yet to receive any counselling.

The Chatfield family continued to doubt the coroner's finding of suicide, and believed the role of police and prison authorities in gathering evidence on Mr Chatfield's death compromised the investigation.

"As quickly as three days after Tane's death, Corrective Services NSW was giving themselves a clean bill of health, saying there's nothing suspicious here, nothing to see here," Colin Chatfield told the inquiry.

"How can a system that put them there in the first place ever be fair?

"How can it be, when there's a big conflict of interest (of authorities) investigating their own? I find that it's a monster's loophole."

At least 21 Indigenous people have died in NSW custody since 2008, including David Dungay Jr, who died at Sydney's Long Bay jail in December 2015.

Nationwide, more than 400 Indigenous people have died in custody since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody was completed in 1991.

Colin said the families of Indigenous people who die in custody should be more closely involved in the investigation process, and demanded a fully independent investigatory body for Indigenous deaths in custody.

He also called for a fresh royal commission on the matter.

"As Aboriginal people, we never really get a chance ... we'll continue to say the system killed our son, we're not born to die in prison," he said.

Earlier on Thursday, an Aboriginal woman who has spent time in jail encouraged the inquiry to be "brave and bold" in its recommendations.

Tabitha Lean also said Indigenous communities were feeling over-policed and over-surveilled amid the COVID-19 pandemic, in what was "a time of fear".

"We actually need you to be brave and bold," Ms Lean said.

"Our mob are dying behind bars. This might be an academic exercise for some ... but for me it's about saving the lives of my brothers and sisters."

Debbie Kilroy, the head of advocacy group Sisters Inside, said she had seen vulnerable women incarcerated in 2020 after being convicted of a series of "low-level, street-type survival offences" due to over-policing.

The sisters of Nathan Reynolds, whose 2018 death of an asthma attack in prison was the subject of a recent inquest, will give evidence on Monday.

Australian Associated Press