He never had a chance – honouring the memory of Joshua Kerr

22 Feb 2024

Meriki Onus honours the life and death of a proud Gunnai, Gunditjmara, and Yorta Yorta man, Joshua Kerr who tragically died in custody in 2022. Meriki has been present at Josh's inquest and offers her insights and reflections into systemic oppression and historical injustices.

credit: Meriki Onus

Although I didn’t have the chance to know Josh intimately in our youth, the news of his passing struck me deeply. Learning of his death through a text message ‘Josh Kerr died in custody,’ I was flooded with a mix of shock, sorrow, and a profound sense of remorse. Grief, I realised, has a curious way of mourning not only the tangible losses but also the missed opportunities and the void of the life we could have shared. As his first cousin, two years his senior, I felt a profound responsibility to honour his memory, even as doubts about the validity of my grief whispered in my mind. Yet, I’m determined that Josh’s story be told. 

At 32 years old, Joshua Steven James Kerr, a proud Gunnai, Gunditjmara, and Yorta Yorta man, left behind a legacy of love for family, community and creativity. His life, tragically cut short on August 10, 2022, while in Port Phillip Prison, echoing the experience of many Blackfullas who suffer at the hands of the system in Australia. Josh was taken at a young age from his mum, Aunty Donnis Kerr. He spent his childhood in and out of the child protection system. Despite this, he maintained a strong sense of who he was.

Like his dad, Stephen Thorpe, Josh was a talented artist. His beautiful artwork lay displayed on the coroner’s foyer during the inquest last week. Through the stunning detail and design it was obvious that Josh was extremely proud of his culture and identity. 

One of Josh Kerr's artworks that was on display at his inquest.

One of Josh Kerr’s artworks that was on display at his inquest.

Josh’s older brother Stevie recalls the last time he saw Josh. In 2019 Stevie volunteered his time to do the annual NAIDOC radio show for 3CR, where they broadcast from all the prisons across Victoria with mob inside, an opportunity to give a shout out to their loved ones and play their favourite songs live on air. He was surprised to see Josh at the Loddon prison visit. Josh cried at the end of the visit and said he loved him and sent his love to their other siblings Loretta and their little brother Ray Ray, and also Stevie’s mum. Josh loved life and loved his people, community and especially the brotherboys. A “happy-go-lucky community fulla” Stevie reflects. He did things his own way, “like dad”. His love for his children and commitment to doing his best underscored his character, despite the challenges he faced.

On August 10 2022, Josh Kerr died of ice toxicity while in custody in the Port Phillip Prison hospital wing, while on remand awaiting for his case to be heard the following month. His desperate pleas for help, ignored for agonising minutes, serve as a damning indictment of a system that failed to provide the care he desperately needed. Even as he lay barely conscious, his final words—”help, I’m dying”—echo a profound tragedy that extends beyond his individual circumstances.

The narrative surrounding Josh’s death must transcend simplistic blame of individuals, it’s hard to articulate the entrenched biases within the prison industrial complex. His story epitomises the systemic racist violence that persists within the colonial legacy of Australia. In remembering Josh Kerr, we are yet again confronted with the stark realities of a system that was founded on our genocide and dispossession and that still works to maintain our oppression. 

As we approach the conclusion of Josh’s coronial inquest this week, we have been subjected to the harrowing testimonies recounting his final moments. 

Hours passed as we listened to witness after witness, their accounts punctuated by the all-too-familiar refrain of ‘I can’t recall’. Some displayed defensiveness, while others offered earnest recollections, yet none extended a gesture of remorse or personal apology to his mum, Aunty Donnis, or to his sisters, Maggie and Patricia and family. Horrifically a common thread of incompetence threaded through each witness account.  To my untrained legal eye, the proceedings seemed mired in a blame game between St Vincent’s Hospital and G4S (Port Phillip Prison). Shockingly, Josh was treated as a violent prisoner, despite no evidence supporting such a characterisation or any history of violence within the prison. Tragically, Josh drew his last breath in the hospital ward of the prison, surrounded by medical staff, as he pleaded for help in his final moments. He lay unconscious on the cell floor for a torturous 18 minutes before intervention, with prison staff callously dismissing his condition as ‘putting in on’. Such neglect and disregard for Josh’s well-being were underscored by the family’s plea for the footage of his suffering not to be released, highlighting the severity of his condition and the violence of the system.

Additionally, prison staff informed the medical personnel at Port Phillip Prison that Josh had refused treatment at St Vincent Hospital—an assertion later revealed to be entirely false and unfounded. This revelation underscores the significant influence prison staff can wield which, in this instance, had the impact of obstructing Josh’s access to essential healthcare. It appears to me and others present at the inquest, that Josh was perceived as though he were actively rejecting medical attention, despite his evident inability to make such decisions. The distressing plea, “Help, I’m dying,” hardly aligns with a refusal of treatment. It begs the questions: Did prison staff perceive Josh as faking his visually obvious condition or rejecting care altogether? Alternatively, wasJosh’s agency disregarded entirely, rendering his voice and needs unimportant within the confines of the prison system? 

Regardless of how we answer these questions, the jarring reality is that Josh was denied adequate healthcare in his time of need, despite his pleas and obvious condition requiring urgent medical care., This is another devastating example that highlights the systemic violence carried out within the prison environment.

‘He never had a chance” his brother, Stevie, whispered in my ear as we sat through the testimony of one of the nurses responsible for Josh’s care. That simple yet profound statement resonated deeply with me. Josh’s journey was marked by a series of injustices from the very beginning. He endured a staggering 40 different placements within the Victorian child protective system and spent much of his formative years in the juvenile justice system. It’s a stark reality of Josh’s experience from the outset.

His mum, Aunty Donnis, herself a member of the stolen generations, grappled with the enduring legacy of government policies designed to erase our identities and forcibly assimilate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples into white society. The atrocities documented in the ‘Bringing Them Home Report’ unequivocally label such policies as genocide, with the deliberate intent of eradicating our cultural heritage and identity.

In the face of systemic oppression and historical injustices, it becomes painfully clear that Josh was denied the fundamental opportunity to thrive and flourish. His story serves as a poignant reminder of the ongoing struggles faced in every single community across the colony. Despite the odds stacked against him, Josh’s spirit endures as a testament to the strength of our peoples in the face of the settler colony.

It’s a sobering reality that Josh’s death fails to elicit the societal outrage it warrants. Despite the collective cries for justice echoed through movements like Black Lives Matter and Stop Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, Josh’s passing serves as yet another grim statistic in a long history of Aboriginal deaths in custody. The many still unfulfilled promises of reform following the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody ring painfully true as another name is added to the ever-growing list of shattered families.

Thirty-two years have passed since the Royal Commission, yet the landscape remains unchanged, with exactly 560 lives lost in custody since, sadly 2 in prison custody this year alone. While efforts such as real-time reporting mechanisms and increased funding aim to address overrepresentation, they fall short of addressing the root causes behind the prison industrial complex and only serve to expand surveillance and increase the harm. With a treaty high on the agenda in Victoria, it’s imperative for policy makers to look at abolition as an end game in stopping Black deaths in custody. However we know that true justice for our people has only come from the streets. 

I asked Stevie what he wanted the world to know about Josh and he answered “that he (Josh) had a kind heart and soul”. So in honouring Josh’s memory, we continue the fight for  justice for our people—a justice that centres the humanity and inherent worth of every single Blackfulla in this country. Justice for our sovereignty and as First Peoples of this country. Josh’s story may be tragically familiar, but it serves as a rallying cry for a future where no one is denied their chance to thrive, to flourish, and to live with dignity and respect.

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