Indigenous prisoner who killed himself wasn't in a 'safe' cell despite being at risk

An Aboriginal man who died after hanging himself in Western Australia’s Casuarina prison had been assessed as at risk, the prison officers’ union says

An Aboriginal man who died in hospital after attempting suicide in Casuarina Prison near Perth, Western Australia, had been assessed as being an at-risk prisoner after repeatedly threatening self-harm but had not been placed in a “safe” cell.

Bevan Stanley Cameron, 26, died in hospital on 2 November, five days after he was found unconscious in his cell in unit 5 around the time of the 3pm roll call on Thursday 28 October. Marc Newhouse, from the Death in Custody Watch Action Committee, said Cameron’s family considered him to have died in his cell because he never woke up again.

The family, most of whom now live in Perth, have been through this before. In 1998, Cameron’s father, also named Bevan Cameron, committed suicide at Greenough Prison near Geraldton, 424km north of Perth.

Guardian Australia understands Cameron was assessed by a psychologist after making a number of threats to kill himself. According to John Welch, from the WA prison officers’ union, Cameron had been placed on a six-hourly observation schedule but that had dropped back to a 12-hourly observation schedule before his attempted suicide.

“They indicates that at that time they were assessing him to be at less risk, rather than more,” Welch said.

The prison has 12 “safe” cells, in its crisis care unit, where inmates are placed if there is a serious or immediate threat of self-harm.

Department of Corrective Services declined to comment on Cameron’s case while the matter was before the coroner.

Cameron is the fourth Aboriginal man to have reportedly died from self-harm involving hanging at the prison since March 2013.

More than half of the deaths in custody in WA in the past three years occurred at Casuarina, which also houses the prison infirmary. According to figures provided by the Department of Corrective Services, 15 of the 24 deaths in WA prison system since 1 January 2013 occurred at Casuarina, and of those six have been provisionally attributed to suicide.

Seven of the 24 were Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people, and of that group, six were at Casuarina.

The figures do not include people who died in police custody, like 22-year-old Yamatji woman Ms Dhu, whose name is not used at her the request of her family, who died in the South Hedland lockup in August 2014. All deaths in custody are subject to a coronial inquest, although most on this list have not yet been assigned an inquest date.

In a letter sent to the WA premier, Colin Barnett, on Friday, and provided to Guardian Australia, Greens senator for WA Rachel Siewert and state Greens MP Robin Chapple said that Cameron’s death was “avoidable”.

“Had Mr Cameron been under appropriate supervision given his history, his death could well have been avoided,” the letter says.

“Had real steps been taken to address Mr Cameron’s mental health issues prior to the attempts on his life then there is every chance he would still be with us today.”

The letter urges the WA government to provide greater transparency about deaths in custody, saying, “it is in the best interests of the state to make this information publicly available and act upon it as a matter of urgency.”

The department’s media procedure following a death in custody is to confirm details of a death when asked, but not to publish the press release on its website or distribute it through its normal channels. Any follow up questions are referred to the coronial office within WA police, which does not comment. That means information about a death in custody often does not come out until the inquest, and the average wait time is now more than three years.

Casuarina is WA’s second-largest publicly owned prison, after the Hakea remand and intake prison. It was built for 397 but has been expanded by building new units and double-bunking. The department currently lists its total capacity at 1,033 prisoners and as of Friday it housed 822.

The inspector of custodial services, Neil Morgan, said in a 2014 report that Casuarina was “doing a decent job with stretched resources” but raised issues of overcrowding – the population was then only 631 – and prisoner boredom. He also noted that support services like the infirmary and crisis care unit had not grown at pace with the prison.

The opposition corrections spokesman, Paul Papalia, agreed, saying “the footprint at Casuarina hasn’t changed, and the footprint inside the fence was designed for 397 prisoners”.

“They are getting less time outside their cell per head of population, far less support from education and training and rehabilitation, and they are spending more time in their cells,” Papalia said. “Of course people are going to be more likely to self-harm and commit suicide.”


Calla Wahlquist

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Colin Barnett says inquest into Ms Dhu's death in custody will begin mid year
WA premier tells family they will not have to wait for the coronial inquest and lets them see the cell where she is believed to have died in police custody

Calla Wahlquist

01, May, 2015 @10:12 AM

Article image
‘We’ve got to put our story out there’: Ms Dhu's family prepare for verdict on death in custody
The inquest into a death of an Indigenous woman in Western Australia exposed a string of failings by police and medical staff. Ahead of the coroner’s findings, Calla Wahlquist reports on Ms Dhu’s last days and how supporters want public outrage to force an overhaul of the justice system

Calla Wahlquist

15, Dec, 2016 @1:10 AM

Article image
WA premier Colin Barnett orders review into Indigenous deaths in custody
Move comes a month after promise to act, but family of Indigenous woman who died in South Hedland watchhouse say the premier has not responded to requests for a meeting

Helen Davidson

04, Dec, 2014 @12:32 AM

Article image
'When will we have peace?' Grief and outrage at three Indigenous deaths in custody in a week
As an inquest handed down findings into a death three years ago, more families were left bereaved, prompting fresh calls for reforms

Lorena Allam

13, Mar, 2021 @7:00 PM

Article image
Ms Dhu's family calls for end to jail for fines as death in custody inquest begins
Inquest begins today in Perth into the death of Ms Dhu, a 22-year-old woman who died in a police cell in 2014 after being jailed for unpaid fines

Calla Wahlquist

23, Nov, 2015 @1:26 AM

Article image
Death in custody and a mother's anguish: time stopped when I heard my son died
Maxine Bennell doesn’t believe her 20-year-old son Jayden’s death in a Western Australian prison was suicide. With the inquest approaching, she’s preparing to ask hard questions, and is determined her son won’t be just another Indigenous statistic

Calla Wahlquist

14, Dec, 2015 @7:31 PM

Article image
Family of Aboriginal teenager who died in custody say lawyers not allowed to dial in to inquest
Some of Mr Yeeda’s family’s legal team unable to attend in person due to hard border

Calla Wahlquist

03, Sep, 2021 @3:28 AM

Article image
Indigenous prisoner complained of severe migraines before dying in custody in Perth
Exclusive: Dannielle Lowe, 41, told partner of being in ‘agony’ in weeks before her death on Christmas Eve

Eden Gillespie

03, Jan, 2023 @2:00 PM

Article image
Intellectually disabled encouraged to plead guilty to reduce jail time, inquiry told
Indefinite detention of those ruled incapable of taking criminal responsibility creating incentive, experts say

Calla Wahlquist

19, Sep, 2016 @8:24 AM

Article image
'No urgency and no risk' in Jayden Bennell being unaccounted for
Guards don’t look for people who miss rehabilitation programs, says second-in-command of Western Australian prisons

Calla Wahlquist

01, Sep, 2016 @7:34 AM