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Justice for Tane Chatfield

Warning: This article contains an image of Tane Chatfield supplied by his family and this content may be distressing for some readers.

There is great sorrow and mourning among our people, but we still have work to do. There is worry about the prevailing situation from a public health perspective, the special vulnerability that faces our people and the politicised media that is being utilised against us – but there is still work to do.

While they keep locking up our people, while they keep locking up anyone, we have got work to do. While we know how they treat us, the contempt and lack of consequence – we know that this behaviour and this unfettered power corrupts absolutely, and it will extend to all those who are locked up. So while we owe the pursuit of justice to those of our people who we have lost in custody, we also know that this struggle is geared to preventing it from happening again.

This struggle demonstrates the persistence of our community in fighting for justice. I say fighting because our requests are callously ignored and when this happens, we take to the streets. Every single gain we have made as a people in this system built to oppress us has started on the streets.

Leaving aside the hypocrisy of the power brokers to advocate for a return to work, school, sport, shopping and church – the media is directing the vitriol of the masses at the Black Lives Matter protest. They pay lip service to the purpose of the protest with words to the effect of ‘I sympathise, but now is not the time.’ They’re right, now is not the time – the time has been and gone and yet the community is still calling for justice. To call for justice in the midst of a pandemic demonstrates how essential to our survival justice is – the institutions responsible must be held to account in addition to the individual perpetrators.

This system is built to protect itself as an institution, it is not build to deliver justice. It is made up of individuals who bring their prejudices to the job and this impacts our people in a way that embeds trauma, or worse, results in death.

As Joshua Creamer, QLD Barrister, wrote, ‘We simply cannot allow this behaviour to continue and expect there to be any real change in the treatment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people while in custody. Nor can Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families expect any sense of “justice” until we make real change. Families are continually let down by the investigation process.’

The fact that our community is protesting at a time like this is telling. It speaks to the sorrow and trauma that is delivered by the criminal justice system in Australia and speaks to the importance of the pursuit of justice. The fact is – unless we are successful in not only the pursuit of justice which includes consequences for those who are either guilty of or complicit in the deaths of Indigenous people in custody – we know that our people will continue dying. A royal commission didn’t stop it – only systemic change will.

We would like to take this opportunity to send love to all the families who continue to fight for justice. This fight is not yours alone but you shoulder the weight of it as you grieve while staunchly fighting for justice. We see you, we hear you, we are with you and we love you.

One of the numerous families that are shouldering this is the Chatfield family and we have been asked to publish the below statement of the Chatfield family and we do so with love and respect to the Chatfield family and all families who continue in their fight for justice.

Tane Chatfield

Chatfield family statement for Coronial Inquest July 17 2020

Read by Nioka Chatfield to a press conference outside the inquest

On the 20th September 2017 our lives were changed forever. Our son Tane had been on remand for two years in Tamworth prison for a crime he did not commit. Tane was 22 yrs old with 1 son. He was a proud Gamilaraay, Gumbaynggirr and Wakka Wakka man.

The night Tane was supposed to have broken the law, he was home in bed with his partner Merinda and his young son. But like so many thousands of Aboriginal people, he was thrown into prison without trial – a decision that would be a death sentence. 

He was finally coming near to the end of his trial in September 2017 and had done a fantastic job giving evidence to clear his name. Eight people testified that he did not commit the crime, including his co-accused. We were thinking he would be home soon. Suddenly we were told that Tane was in Tamworth hospital and we could have an emergency visit.

When we got there 2hrs later (as we live 2hrs away from Tamworth) we found our beautiful son Tane connected to a life support machine. He was lying there fully naked, only a pair of hospital socks on. We still don’t know what happened to his clothes. It had taken five hours after Tane was hospitalised for them to call his partner Merinda and no one ever called us. The staff at the hospital had no answers for us about what had happened to Tane. Corrective Service Officers sat at his door while we cried, we sat and wondered if our boy was going to live or die. Hospital staff told our other children that “your brother’s brain is dying”. He never woke up.

Then began our long campaign for truth and justice, which we continue today. Waiting almost three years with no answers about our son’s death has taken a huge toll on our family. With grieving, you are supposed to have a process of acceptance and moving forward. But without answers we have been stuck. We ask all of you here today – why has it taken three years for us to start to get the information we need about what happened to Tane?

Why was the initial investigation done by Corrective Services themselves and by the police? We all know that these systems work to protect their own.

One thing we want to see change right now is that there is a completely independent body set up to carry out the immediate investigation into any death in custody. And in Aboriginal deaths in custody, our people must be centrally involved. The family must be given all information straight away and allowed to share our own experiences and views to inform the investigation.

To understand the pain and confusion we have been through not knowing what happened, you need to understand the history of our family and Corrective Services. Tane’s father Colin was in and out of prison for much of the time that the children were growing up. They were robbed of that time with their father. Colin suffered from terrible bashings, from psychological abuse, extreme racism and segregation.

Colin got to know about all the Corrective Service officers and had to be on guard the whole time, as you never knew when they would strike. He was always training himself and training the young ones so they could be prepared. Aboriginal inmates were targeted and were far more likely to be locked in segregation and Colin suffered this all the time. Colin’s cousin Douglas Henry Pitt was bashed and hung in the jail. We always heard about Aboriginal suicides in prison through this time and always thought that people were being killed by guards.

One thing that has been totally missing from this inquest is any understanding of Tane’s experience in the prison system. Just like his father, Tane too was bashed by guards. On many visits, and on phone calls, he would tell us of this treatment. Tane’s sister has even witnessed him being assaulted by guards when she went for a visit.

That’s why we say that the prison system killed our son. No matter what happened in that cell on the morning he was found. The constant pressure, the violence, being away from the family he loved, we saw him change after the time he spent inside. He was pushed to breaking point.

Our son was not born to get a death sentence from the Corrective Services system or the Justice Health system. Tane has left a paper trail that has been examined all week, a paper trail so strangers can tell me about my boy. But that paper trail doesn’t give any insight into Tane’s beautiful personality. It doesn’t give any insight into the struggle of a young man on remand for two years who fought for his innocence.

We don’t want any more men, women or children on remand in the NSW system because it can be a death sentence. Whether by hanging points or the brutality of Corrective Services officers, whether by a knee in my son’s back or by suicide. Release these prisoners. Cut down the hanging points. Allow anyone kept in prison to ring their family when there is an emergency or when they need help. 

Why weren’t we called when Tane was taken to hospital? Why was he stopped from making a phone call on the morning that he died? A phone call can save a life – and we want to make sure we make changes to save the next life.

We have seen that Corrective Services staff and Justice Health staff breached policies and procedures. They assumed things about my boy without checking the proper paperwork. I believe that if the reports had been read, if my son was allowed to contact his family, or if I was contacted to say he was in hospital, I wouldn’t be standing here today without my son, we could have all been at home together as a family.

Aboriginal people are less than 3% of the population. Here in NSW we are almost 30% of the prison system. And more than one third of those prisoners are on remand – many will be found not guilty or won’t be sentenced to any time in prison at all. The numbers of Aboriginal people locked up have increased every single year since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody in 1991. We are the most incarcerated people in the whole world. How much more blood does Australia want? What will it take to stop locking up and brutalising our people?

We say that the prison system itself is destructive and the bars must come down. There is no rehabilitation, there is no making society any safer. People go in and just get an education in how to be a better criminal. They have their mental health destroyed. They develop no skills and get no opportunities to better contribute to society. We say build communities not prisons.

We can see from the evidence in this inquest that Black Lives still don’t matter in the NSW prison system. Throughout this inquest we have seen plenty of people trying to cover each other’s arses. But no one involved in these agencies has come to me and said it was disgusting how my boy died. I have only got one sorry through the inquest. But sorry does not bring back his life from a prison system in Australia that kills our people.

We need change now and we need justice for Tane and everyone who has been killed in custody. We ask you all to join us in our fight to make that change.

Prepared with the assistance of Jumbunna Research, UTS.

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