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Indigenous Australia

Australia's George Floyd moment

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Mother of David Dungay Jnr, Leetona Dungay, is still fighting for justice for her son, who died in custody under murky circumstances (Image via Justice for David Dungay Junior / gofund.me.com)

In 2015, David Dungay Jnr died at Long Bay gaol. He was 26 years old, he was Indigenous, and he suffered from significant health issues, including childhood-onset Type 1 diabetes.

His death happened as a consequence of his being moved from one cell to another. Dungay was being moved because his blood sugar had already been tested four times that day and found to be elevated. The "new" cell was equipped with CCTV, presumably so that his blood sugar and his physical well-being could be monitored remotely.

What caused his death?

Deputy State Coroner Derek Lee found Mr Dungay died from cardiac arrhythmia, with contributing factors including his Type 1 diabetes, anti-psychotic medication and extreme stress and agitation.

Mr Dungay was eating a packet of biscuits and the officers demanded that he stop eating before they moved him. He was given two minutes to comply. When he refused to stop eating the biscuits, the guards called on the Immediate Action Team (IAT) for assistance. The IAT is used as a "specialist" team for moving inmates, a de facto "riot squad".

On its arrival, the IAT rushed into his cell, grabbed Dungay and shoved him face-down on to his mattress. They then cuffed him, with his hands behind his back. He was picked up, moved to another cell and held face-down again. A nurse administered a fast-acting sedative into his buttock as he was being restrained, by up to six guards. In scenes reminiscent of George Floyd’s recent death, he continued to scream that he could not breathe. One of the officers responded to his cries several times, that if he could talk, he could breathe. Soon after he was administered the sedative, Dungay died.

As the new cell was an observation cell, equipped with video surveillance, the footage showed that he was spitting blood. His mother has since noted that his nose was broken, the skin split, and his face was “caved in”. There has been no finding as to how the injuries occurred. They must have occurred between the arrival of the IAT and his being moved along the corridor. It appears there was no other window of opportunity for his injuries to be inflicted.

What was the outcome of the investigation?

The finding of the NSW Coroner’s Court was that Dungay died from inadequate medical care. The detective tasked with investigating the death did not enter the cell for two hours after Dungay’s death and all the material evidence had been removed in the meantime.

No matter where you stand, something is not right about this whole case. A 26-year-old man died because he was eating biscuits. The actions of the staff – both the guards and the nursing staff – were dictated by a desire to keep him safe? They wanted him to stop eating biscuits because he might have a negative reaction to the sugar in those biscuits? He died from a surfeit of care, perhaps?

No charges were laid, but Mr Dungay continues to be mourned by his family and most of the rest of the Australian community doesn’t even blink. It is a ridiculous sham to see and hear Australia dragging itself up that tiny hillock, where the high moral ground is to be found and judging Americans for the death of George Floyd.

Consider the number 432. That is the number of deaths of Indigenous citizens who have died in custody since 1991 in Australia — 432 deaths, over 29 years equals 14.89 deaths per year, every year!

One argument sometimes raised is that these were deaths of dangerous men and women and police and prison guards have a right to be safe. Closer analysis shows that there are also children or ill people, or people on remand or being pursued over petty crimes. There is little evidence of police officers or prison guards in fear for their lives. Aboriginal deaths in custody are seen in this country as being somehow normal, even expected.

From those 432 deaths, over 29 years, not one of their custodians has been convicted of a crime relating to the deaths. In the case of Mr Dungay, the Coroner declined to refer any of the guards for prosecution, but he did recommend more training for guards and nurses. A lot of use that will be.

Mark Buckley is a writer based in regional Victoria. Read more from Mark on his blog Ask Bucko.

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