The family of a Kamilaroi man who died in custody earlier this month from unexplained head injuries sustained while in a NSW prison is calling for an explanation from authorities.
Eric James Whittaker, 35, was taken to Parklea prison in Sydney after being refused bail for ‘minor’ charges last month, according to his family. He was then taken to Blacktown hospital and then Westmead hospital around June 29, after he was injured in an unexplained incident while in prison.
His family, who have given NITV News permission to use his name and image, said the Walgett man died on July 4 following three failed resuscitation attempts. They said he was shackled to the hospital bed, despite being in a coma for the last two days he was alive.
Mr Whittaker’s Aunty, Diane Whittaker said said she wants answers about how he died and are devastated by the manner in which Mr Whittaker and his family have been treated by Corrective Services staff.
“He was found in the yard; that was the first story that was told to the family. The second story was told that he was found in the cell. They’ve given us so many different stories, covering up. I mean, we don’t understand,” she told NITV News.
“My cousin, she had actually taken a photo of Eric being shackled to the bed and his legs being shackled. It came to a point where they (Corrective Services) were bridging up to her camera and her phone and for it to be deleted. ”
Social Justice campaigner Raul Bassi who is working with Mr Whittaker's family that the circumstances of the death raised many questions.
“They [the family] were told one thing by Corrective Services, and another by police, but whatever happened he hit his head,” he said.
“With deaths in custody it’s always [confusing] and when they are saying ‘oh he fell in the ward’, then saying ‘he fell in an office’ we have two versions and the versions don’t coincide with each other."
A spokeswoman for Corrective Services NSW said the death was under investigation.
"This matter is currently being investigated by NSW Police and CSNSW. CSNSW understands that the police are not treating the death as suspicious," the spokeswoman said in a statement.
"CSNSW will prepare a report for the Coroner and it would be inappropriate to comment further."
Activist Ken Canning who is also in touch with the family said the circumstances of Mr Whittaker’s death were “quite disgusting”.
“He was on life support for 48 hours and shackled to the bed – they refused to remove the shackles from his ankles, despite a family request. He couldn’t go anywhere, he was technically dead,” he told NITV News.
Mr Canning said the details provided so far did not provide a clear picture of what happened to Mr Whittaker.
“According to the doctor, the bleeding started at the top of his skull. Now if it was an aneurysm, that might explain it, but on two occasions they told him he had a fall, but it’s hard to land on the top of your head,” he said.
The death follows that of two other Indigenous people in NSW custody in recent years.
In July 2016, Rebecca Maher was found dead in a cell at Maitland police station just six hours after being taken into custody without charge. Police did not contact the NSW Custody Notification Service which provides legal and health advice to Indigenous people taken into police custody.
Six months earlier, in December 2015, Mr Whittaker's cousin David Dungay died during medical treatment at Sydney’s Long Bay Jail just weeks away from parole in what his family say were suspicious circumstances.
NSW Health declined to comment.