'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

The second-in-command of Western Australian prisons said there had been no “urgency” to find Indigenous man Jayden Bennell on the afternoon that he died in custody because there had been no “risk”, a coronial inquest has heard.

Bennell, a 20-year-old Bibbulmun Noongar man, was found hanged in an unlocked cleaning storage room at Casuarina maximum security prison on 6 March 2013.

He had been scheduled to go to an Indigenous-run drug and alcohol program from 1.30pm that afternoon but did not attend. The last record of him alive, before he was found at 3.45pm, was a call he tried to place to a cousin at 1.26pm.

The inquest heard on Wednesday that the two Indigenous men who ran the program had made three attempts to find him by asking the prison guards to call the unit, at 1.35pm, about 2pm and about 2.30pm.

None of the six guards who have given evidence said they recalled receiving those calls or being alerted to the fact Bennell was unaccounted for until 3.15pm, when he was marked absent at the afternoon muster.

Steven Southgate, assistant commissioner of custodial operations at the Department of Corrective Services, told an inquest at Perth magistrates court on Thursday that the prison did not have a policy of following up on people who did not attend scheduled rehabilitation programs because it wanted to foster a culture of self-determination and “choice”.

Checking why people had not attended scheduled programs, he said, impacted on that choice.

Southgate said prison guards would only actively look for a prisoner if he was reported missing at muster, and that there had been “no urgency and no risk” in Bennell being unaccounted for in the two hours before muster.

Steven Castan, counsel for Bennell’s mother, Maxine, replied: “There is a risk, because he died.”

Southgate said the prison superintendent had decided last week to partially restrict access to the room where Bennell was found hanged because he was concerned media coverage of the inquest could prompt copycat suicide attempts. The reason it had taken three and a half years since Bennell’s death to restrict access to the cupboard, he said, was that it had taken that long for the matter to progress to inquest.

He did not view the room as particularly unsafe, he said, because there were myriad other areas in the unit, and in Casuarina more broadly, where an inmate could harm himself.

The coroner, Sarah Linton, said the storage room – which is dark, has a door that inmates can close, and, according to Richard Mudford, who conducted the department’s internal review of Bennell’s death, is “riddled” with hanging points – was an “unusual” room to have in a prison.

Linton asked Southgate whether requiring that the door be left open, or that the light be left on, might at least have allowed guards to find Bennell sooner, even if it would not have prevented his death.

“He was still hanging there for a long time with no one finding him and that must be very distressing to his family … and even when they are looking for him, no one looks in an obvious place,” she said.

“They are calling up and no one goes looking for him … even when people are looking, they are not seeing.”

Mudford told the inquest that he had not considered whether the room ought to have been kept locked, access to hanging points generally, why Bennell had not been at his scheduled program that afternoon, or attempts by program workers to find Bennell.

In hindsight, he said, he should have pursued those avenues. His review was “informative but it was not thorough”.

Mudford said the focus of his review had been Bennell’s mental health. He found the inmate had adequate access to mental healthcare, despite him not having seen a psychiatrist for seven months before he died and refusing to take his medication.

Southgate was the 17th witness to give evidence at the inquest, which was scheduled to finish on Thursday afternoon after Detective Sergeant Alex West, the coronial investigator, was recalled.

• Crisis support services can be reached 24 hours a day: Lifeline 13 11 14; Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467; Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800; MensLine Australia1300 78 99 78


Calla Wahlquist

The GuardianTramp

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