Recommended Resources – The Stringer – Independent News, Investigative Journalism

Why are more prisoners dying from ‘natural causes’?

May 20th, 2013

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Deaths from natural causes have become the most frequent cause of death in Australian prisons. In 2011 PhD researcher in Australian Deaths in Custody, Gerry Georgatos called for an independent investigation to explain the sharp rise in the number of Australian prison deaths attributed to ‘natural causes’. This year there has been a staggering wave of natural cause deaths in Victorian prisons.

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Last week, Victorian Corrections Commissioner Jan Shuard said to the Public Accounts and Estimates Committee that there had been 12 prisoners who had died in prison custody since the beginning of the year. This figure is startling because in most years deaths in custody in Victorian prisons average less than this number.

Nine were described to have died of ‘natural causes’.

In 2011, Gerry Georgatos’ research underwrote the opening and closing articles of an eleven series Deaths in Custody investigation by reporter Inga Ting for Crikey.

Gerry Georgatos pointed out in Ms Ting’s article that natural causes accounted for almost three in four prison custody deaths in 2008 and this statistic has continued. He also pointed out that equally disturbing are the young ages at which many of these prisoners are dying.

In the 2011 Crikey article Georgatos said, “You can’t have people dying in significant numbers at these young ages – in their 20s, 30s, and so on – and deem them as natural causes.”

“We would not, and do not, accept this elsewhere. We seek the cause of death and whatever may have contributed to premature deaths and, where possible, lay charges in pursuit of culpability and liability.”

In Ms Ting’s Crikey article Georgatos rejected the Australian Institute of Criminology’s (AIC) claim that the rise in natural cause deaths is “probably linked to an ageing prison population and a prison population with more health problems than the general population”, and said that these “assumptions” need validation.

“I have deep concerns about the attribution of manner and cause of death and therefore about the classification of deaths in custody,” said Georgatos. “There is nothing natural about a person dying of causes that basic medical intervention could prevent. More than 50 per cent of Aboriginal folk who die in prison are classified as natural cause deaths but maybe what has occurred is that medical attention wasn’t flagged or their insulin dependency was not given proper care or they were maltreated or neglected.”

At the time he called for an inquiry, and he still continues to argue that such an inquiry is needed. At the time of Georgatos’ call for the inquiry, Australian Medical Association (AMA) national vice president Dr Steve Hambleton told Ms Ting that he would support an investigation into natural cause deaths. He said that the AMA had previously campaigned on this issue.

“The ages of Australian prisoners dying are alarming. The differentiation between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and other Australians makes it even more disturbing,” said Dr Hambleton.

Victoria’s spate of prisoner deaths this year should be an opportunity for Georgatos’ and Hambleton’s calls for an inquiry to be heeded.

Commissioner Shuard’s disclosure had followed silence on the issue and the Productivity Commission’s latest report which suggested there are no apparent unnatural causes of death in prison custody.

Two weeks ago a prisoner at the Melbourne Remand Centre committed suicide.

In February, a 36 year old inmate hung himself at Port Phillip Prison.

In the beginning of February a 31 year old man hung himself in his cell at the high security Barwon prison. The cell was supposed to have no hanging points.

The Barwon death was in a unit of the prison, Banksia, where prisoners were locked for 23 hours a day.

“The number of deaths in custody goes up and down. There is not a regular number, it can be as high as 14, I think, as it was in 2007-08, and this year so far there have been 12,” said Commissioner Shuard.

Human rights advocate Charandev Singh said to The Age reporter Andrea Petrie that he had never come across so many deaths in custody in such a short period.

He said to Ms Petrie that he knew of two other Victorian prisoners who were in critical condition in hospital, one from Port Phillip and another from Barwon.

“At least one of those men does not look like he is going to survive, so the figure might rise to 14,” he said to Ms Petrie.

Mr Singh said he believed the circumstances of these so-called ‘natural deaths’ were more indicative of various medical neglect and inaccessibility to appropriate health care.

The Australian prison population has more than doubled in the last twenty years from 15,000 to 31,000. Between 2000 to 2008 prison custodial deaths attributed to natural causes rose to 24.6 per cent per year nationwide. From 1990 to 1999 natural deaths had been 16.3 per cent and in the 1980s they had been at 10.6 per cent.

Georgatos has said that Australia has one of the world’s worst prison suicide rates and the classification of so many unnatural deaths should be examined. Ultimately it is the Coroner who determines whether a death is natural or otherwise but Georgatos said that firstly the criteria in determining classifications should be re-examined. Secondly, he said  an inquiry into prisoner health should be commenced.

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