The Department of Correctional Services has been told by the South Australian ombudsman it must apologise to the family of Wayne Fella Morrison for the way it treated them after his death in custody.
In a report tabled in South Australian parliament today, the ombudsman found systematic failures by the department in their treatment of the 29-year-old leading up to his death at the Royal Adelaide Hospital in 2016.
The ombudsman, Mr Wayne Lines, said he was "appalled" at the treatment of the family.
"Mr Morrison’s family should never have been put in the situation that they were put in. I am appalled at their treatment," Lines said.
"In my view, Mr Morrison’s family were not treated with the openness, frankness and sensitivity that they deserved. It is not at all surprising that Mr Morrison’s family appeared to regard the department’s actions with suspicion. The department’s actions did not instil confidence or trust in its dealing with Aboriginal prisoners in custody."
One incident highlighted in the report related to the department’s decision not to provide the family or the Aboriginal Liaison Officer with information about Mr Morrison’s condition or whereabouts after he had been rushed to hospital.
The family made repeated attempts to find out where he was and what was happening, but the Department of Corrections had changed Mr Morrison’s name to “Ben Waters” a move they said was standard practice to protect an individuals privacy.
Departmental officials told the ombudsman they made the decision after repeated calls were made by “unidentified individuals” to the Royal Adelaide Hospital asking about Mr Morrison.
At the time Mr Morrison had fallen into a coma and the refusal to provide the family with information or access led to them being escorted from the hospital by security. They were made to wait in the car park.
The ombudsman said there was no evidence to suggest this was done deliberately or with malice, and that the department had plainly failed to adapt its procedures at a moment when “time was of the essence.”
“In my view, in this situation, the reason for Mr Morrison’s non-appearance was that he was in a serious, if not critical, medical condition. It was not a routine procedural matter,” the report said.
“The nature of Mr Morrison’s physical condition meant that there was urgency in the family being notified. Families of a critically injured prisoner should be informed of that fact as soon as practicable and given every reasonable opportunity to visit that prisoner as a matter of priority. Clearly, from Mr Morrison’s family’s perspective, time was of the essence.”
Apology but no accountability
Recommendation 1 of the report directed the department to apologise to the family for failing to identify Mr Morrison as an “at risk” prisoner.
The family of Mr Morrison welcomed the ombudsman’s recommendation and have asked for a meeting to take place in person.
Speaking to NITV News, Mr Morrison’s sister Latoya Rule said a meaningful apology would go some way to bringing closure.
“I hope that the apology from the department will be genuine given the disrespect they’ve shown my family has been continuous, and they have continually denied any wrongdoing or mistreatment of my family and I,” Ms Rule said.
“There’s been no accountability by the department for their actions as long as the process has been going.
“Them having to physically meet us and give an apology means they have to acknowledge our existence and our grief. And there’s an empty space where Wayne should have been. An apology humanises the experiences we’ve been through.”
The report marks a four-year-long investigation into the administrative handling of events before and after Mr Morrison’s death.
As there is an active coronial inquiry into the circumstances around Mr Morrison’s death, the investigation focused on the institutional response and relied on the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody to make its findings.
The investigation identified nine separate issues with the Department’s handling of events.
These included a failure to raise a Notification of Concern or treat Mr Morrison as an “at risk” prisoner, a failure to identify him as an Aboriginal person, and a failure to keep records – particularly during the three or so minutes when Mr Morrison was transported to a high security wing of the prison.
“By transporting Mr Morrison to G Division in a van without recording capacity, the Department acted in a manner that was unreasonable,” the report said.
The report recommended all prison vans be fitted with video recording equipment or that hand-held cameras be used to record transfers, and that all guards in South Australian prisons should be made to wear body cameras.
Department of Correctional Services Chief Executive David Brown said in a statement that he acknowledged the "pain and grief" acknowledged by Mr Morrison's family and sent them a letter of apology yesterday.
“The safety and wellbeing of all prisoners in the custody of the Department for Correctional Services is paramount. Mr Morrison's passing was tragic and unexpected," Mr Brown said. "The Department has pro-actively cooperated with the investigation providing a thorough, genuine and pro-active response. The Ombudsman himself has reflected on this in his final report.”
Mr Brown said his department had accepted 16 of the ombudsman's 17 recommendations with a review of the final one now in progress, but would not make further public comment as the Coronial Inquest remains ongoing.
Mr Morrison died on 26 September 2016 after being restrained by corrections officers at South Australia’s Yatala Labour Prison.
Video footage of the restraint released during the inquest shows up to 18 prison officers piling on top of Mr Morrison in a narrow hallway.
The footage records the guards restraining Mr Morrison by his hands and ankles, fitting him with a spit hood and then carrying him positioned face down out to a prison van for transport to the prison’s high security wing.
The coronial inquest into the circumstances surrounding his death began in 2018 and remains ongoing, with proceedings currently on hold until early next year.