Eric Whittaker, a 35-year-old Gamilaroi man and father of five, died while shackled to his hospital bed on 4 July. He had been refused bail for minor charges and sent to prison. The circumstances of his death remain unclear. Eric is the latest in a number of horrific deaths in custody in NSW. His family joined a protest on 19 July demanding justice and an independent inquiry. The protest had been planned for some time to mark one year since Wiradjuri woman Rebecca Maher was found dead in a Maitland police cell.
Mr Whittaker’s family have been provided conflicting reports on the head injuries which caused his death, with police claiming he fell in an office, and Corrective Services that he fell in the prison yard. Neither account is immediately consistent with the doctor’s report that the bleeding started at the top of his skull.
Mr Whittaker was taken to Westmead hospital, where he was shackled to a hospital bed, despite being on life support. Requests to have the shackles removed were refused by Corrective Services, who instead demanded the family delete pictures taken of the appalling scene. After life support was turned off, the family were given only 10 minutes in the room before being bustled out.
The denial of bail and subsequent incarceration happened in the context of recent, harsh changes to NSW bail laws. These laws extend the presumption against bail to a swathe of offences and have led to a 20 per cent increase in incarceration. This has had a massive impact on Aboriginal people in particular. Since the Coalition took power in NSW in 2011, Indigenous incarceration has risen by 35 per cent. While there have been deep cuts to social support services, the Coalition has committed $3.8 billion to building thousands of new prison beds.
Mr Whittaker’s family also lost Eric’s 26-year-old cousin David Dungay Hill to death in custody in December 2015. Dungay was held face-down, restrained, and tranquilised by riot cops in Long Bay jail. His final words were “I can’t breathe”. Aboriginal rights campaigners are planning a national week of action against deaths in custody and youth prisons in the last week of September, when the NT Royal Commission examining abuse of juvenile detainees hands down its final report.
By Daniel Cotton