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Who is accountable for our deaths?

Wayne Fella Morrison died in custody on 26th September, 2016 from reasons including spithood and restraint asphyxia (suffocation). He was a 29 year old father, a fisherman and an artist. Wayne had been on remand for six days prior to his death. He spent three days on life support in the Intensive Care Unit of the Royal Adelaide Hospital in South Australia. He had never been in trouble with the law before this incident. During the final moments of his life, CCTV footage from the prison shows him being restrained by at least 12 correctional officers. Following his restraint, he was positioned in the back of a correctional transport van with 7 officers where he spent approximately three minutes. He was pulled out unconscious and died three days later.

Wayne Fella Morrison was my older brother.

In 2015 I posted a video to the ABC’s Q&A television program, calling on the Australian government to respond to the pressing issue of Aboriginal deaths in custody over symbolic reform. My video to the Q & A panel posed the question, “At the time of the 1991 Royal Commission into deaths in custody Aboriginal people accounted for 1 in 7 deaths. That number has now soared to 1 in 4. If the government’s response to Indigenous issues is to remove symbolic representations of racism from the Australia constitution, will we ever see practical change? Or is it time that us First Nations peoples sought international aid?”

Wayne died in custody roughly a year after I recorded the video. I staged a physical protest surrounding deaths in custody at the Q & A live show on Kaurna Land (Adelaide), on what would have been Wayne’s 30th Birthday.

If the governments response to Indigenous issues is to remove symbolic representations of racism from the Australia constitution, will we ever see practical change?

The Coronial inquest into Wayne’s death began mid-2018 and will continue into the beginning of February 2019. There is close to 400 Aboriginal deaths in custody cases occurring prior to my brother’s death,  with no convictions afforded for the brutality by police/correctional officers of such violent events. I worry that Aboriginal deaths in custody have continued as common practice and in fact, normalised in prisons and police systems. I reflect on the symbolism of the Coroner’s Court and how recommendations are largely made to change practices within the prison and strengthen the prisons ability to accommodate more Aboriginal peoples, rather than abolish the systemic racism that supports the prison industrial complex in the first instance. I think about the discourse this creates deriving from the lack of justice for our people’s deaths.

For example, just recently lawyers for the seven correctional officers in the van sought a blanket release from giving evidence, citing the Coroner’s Act special privileges that protects individuals from the possibility of self-incrimination. They didn’t even want to afford us the benefit of seeing their faces and being accountable to what happened in the final moments of Wayne’s life under their care. Thankfully South Australian Coroner Jayne Basheer made a final determination that officers would have to appear in court, but what really does the Australian justice system provide us if Aboriginal people’s lives continue to be subjugated within it? Who is accountable for our deaths?

To explain, I am in no way implying that coronial proceedings are not important to Aboriginal deaths in custody cases. In fact, investigations surrounding the cause of death in prisons can have a great impact for our grieving families to at least get an account of what happened to our loved ones in the absence of our care. It can also raise the spotlight on the behaviours of correctional and police officers – like those that piled atop of my brother’s body. However, it is time for us to admit that institutional reform within prisons is not enough and that we need to shift the paradigm to one of practical transformation through decolonisation.

The masters tools will never dismantle the masters house

When I recorded my video question to Q & A I was aware of the fact that Aboriginal peoples’ were being killed in custody and Australia needed to do something about it. In 2019 I no longer call on the government hoping they will dismantle their own genocidal system. I no longer put my faith in a system that exists upon the disappearance of Aboriginal lives and the subjugation of Aboriginal sovereignty. I no longer question the need of drawing attention to systemic violence and brutality by Australian police and corrections outside of the state itself.

So, in January 2019 Kaleesha Morris and I from the Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance (WAR) will be travelling to Turtle Island (Washington, DC) to share the story of Wayne’s life and death, and the issue of Aboriginal deaths in custody in Australia at the International Indigenous Peoples March. We will stand in solidarity with Indigenous Peoples across the world and we will continue the work of those who have come before us in hope of achieving a better future… or rather a future, at least.

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