Academic journal article Social Justice

Then and Now, Us and Them: A Historical Reflection on Deaths in and out of Custody

Academic journal article Social Justice

Then and Now, Us and Them: A Historical Reflection on Deaths in and out of Custody

Article excerpt

The Ever-Present Threat of Death Before and After Prison

SURVIVAL IN ANY PRISON SYSTEM IS NOT A GIVEN. THE SUBJECT OF DEATHS IN CUSTODY is difficult, a bit too close to home for me to write about, for I live with the omnipresent fear that I may not make it through my sentence. I have been a prisoner in maximum and super-maximum security prisons in Victoria, Australia, since 1986. I have seen many deaths in custody. I have also seen the phenomenon of many more people dying very soon after being released from prison. This is even more worrying to me because I had hoped that the carceral suffering, dangers, and punishments would end upon leaving prison.

In 1994, a meeting was held at the Melbourne Town Hall to commemorate the large number of women who had died very soon after release from prison. In the late 1990s, the problem of post-release death again came to public attention in Victoria (in relation to prisoners being released from the privately operated, medium-security Fulham Prison in Sale, Victoria), when railway workers complained to their union about the number of dead people they were finding at the last stop in the city. Attention was focused on the trauma suffered by railway workers who regularly found these dead ex-cons.

Most prisoners in Victoria, and throughout Australia, fully complete their sentences, and are not released on parole or other correctional orders. (1) When on parole, a prisoner is deemed to be still under a sentence (s.76, Corrections Act 1986), but through a legal fiction, a prisoner is not considered to be in the custody of the secretary to the Department of Justice (s.4[2][a] Corrections Act 1986). Post-release prisoner deaths, even those that happen before the person has reported to the parole officer directly after release, do not officially count as deaths in custody.

Between January 1990 and December 1999, the Victorian State Coroner's Office undertook a research project that tracked prisoners released on parole in Victoria to ascertain how many died unnatural deaths (suicide, accidents, or homicide) (Graham, 2003). Given the unnatural death rate in the general population, 78 deaths were predicted. However, it was found that there were 820 unnatural deaths among the ex-prisoners. As such, ex-prisoners were over 10 times more likely to die an unnatural death than were people of the same age in the general community. Specifically, male ex-prisoners were seven times more likely to die, and women were 27 times more likely to die an unnatural death (Ibid.: 100). Sixty percent of these deaths were due to a drug overdose, which means that approximately 25% of the 1,620 heron-related deaths in Victoria between 1990 and 2000 were ex-prisoners (Ibid.). Not captured in the sample were ex-prisoners who moved interstate, changed their names, or were released without parole (the vast majority). Thus, the study underestimates the death rates of ex-prisoners (Ibid.: 96).

Shortly after being arrested and while on remand, I saw a prisoner taken from one part of the supermax Jika Jika Unit, where I was held, to another more isolated part, where he died in suspicious circumstances. (2) Five prisoners died next to me in the Jika Jika supermax unit in a protest that we mounted over the appalling conditions and treatment we suffered there. Before dealing with a specific prison death, I first outline the history of the founding of Australia as a prison settlement and of the prison at Port Arthur, Tasmania, which was the epitome of the convict system. I then move forward to 1996, when 35 people were killed in a mass shooting at the Port Arthur Prison Historical Site. Next I detail how, at around the same time as those shootings, a prisoner at Barwon Prison died while being "restrained" by prison staff. Barwon prison, where I am currently held, is a maximum and super-maximum security prison in Lara, Victoria, which is near the regional center of Geelong. I then illustrate the differential treatment of instances of death and suffering: some are considered to be infotainment, others a national tragedy, while some are simply ignored. …

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