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Cleveland Dodd's fate is Australia's national shame

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Cleveland Dodd tragically took his own life while in custody (Image by Dan Jensen)

The funeral of a teenager who passed away while inside WA's juvenile detention system was marred by unwanted controversy, writes Gerry Georgatos.

CONTENT WARNING: This article discusses suicide

ON 12 OCTOBER, Cleveland Dodd, a boy who had just turned 16, who was once showered with dreams and hopes, closed his eyes for the last time in a cell, in Unit 18, a gazetted children’s prison in a maximum-security adult prison.

Unit 18 is the year-and-a-half-old offshoot of Banksia Hill children’s prison and the culmination of the two-decades-old failures practised there.

Banksia Hill is an abysmal cesspit where nurture, love, rapport and resonance are not part of the vocabulary. Unit 18 is a Gulag, where children are caged all day long, shackled for hours. Punishment, isolation and caging pillar the strange science practised by the gaolers — the Department of Corrective Services.

Cleveland spent the last months of his life at Unit 18; the near entirety in a cell. There were warnings to the Department of Corrective Services by the Aboriginal Legal Service of Cleveland’s dangerously deteriorating mental health.

We are continually sold the notorious argument there are no alternatives to Unit 18. This is not just insulting, but sad.

Where is the humanity?  

Comrade Megan Krakouer and I have spent every day since 12 October supporting Cleveland’s loved ones. In the early hours of that day, I was informed a boy had died in Unit 18.

A source told me the Departments of Justice and Corrective Services were bracing for the tempest, and the State Government and the media gurus were shellshocked.

Cleveland’s body was on life support in the ICU. Doctors said there was nothing they could do. Over the next seven days, family arrived from Kalgoorlie, Meekatharra, Laverton, Warburton, Geraldton, Moora, Morawa and Mullewa.

The Department of Justice flew in a dozen family members, bussed in others, and flew in the father from Greenough Prison for bedside vigils and last respects.

The Department of Justice also funded my accommodation at a Perth motel for 13 days, where I was able to assist and support up to 30 grieving family members who had been put up at the motel. Megan and I were the only in-person on-the-ground support for the immediate family and out-of-towners.

The father, Wayne, handcuffed and ankle-shackled, spent every day at the hospital, escorted from Hakea Prison, to where he had been transferred from Geraldton’s Greenough Prison.

I had declined the family’s requests to visit the young one in the ICU. I considered that I was a stranger and had no place at his bedside. I was respecting my view; this was private time for family.

On the morning of 19 October, I overheard Wayne was handcuffed and ankle-shackled. I was appalled. Megan contacted the Department of Corrective Services and we also contacted the Premier, Roger Cook. Thanks to Roger, the cuffs and shackles were removed. It would be the last day Cleveland would draw breath. For the first time, his father was able to embrace and hug his only child.

The mother, Nadene, requested I visit her son. She said I had become a family friend. We went to the ICU. Wayne and I hugged. My heart ached at the boy’s heavy breathing.

I stayed in the ICU and at 10:14 PM, Cleveland drew his last breath. Soon, a doctor said he had passed. Father and mother wailed, both fell on top of their son, forging as one. His grandmothers, uncles and aunts fell to their knees, searing cries and wails.

Megan and I were asked by the family if we could attend the service and funeral for Cleveland in Meekatharra on the first day of summer.

Cleveland is now one with the Earth, his spirit in communion with his ancestors.

We grieve that a child should leave so soon before his full bloom.

In his memory, we must remain stalwarts to change, to a kinder world and solid in pursuit, even in the strongest winds.

On the first day of summer, a boy was laid in earth Meekatharra drawn. But on that day, chaos reigned and human betrayals gave cause to his funeral paused. His father, two hours before the scheduled 10 AM service, was denied by his gaolers the promise to attend his only child's funeral. We were shocked. We could not idle quietly.

Family and the 500 who were to mourn his leaving united to say they would not let Cleveland leave without both parents present. The young one's spirit willed his family, kin and friends to fight for his father to be by his side. Hours in stand-off steeped in hurry and reckonings.

Megan and I left no stone unturned, while hundreds gathered peacefully outside Meekatharra’s police station with the promise they would not leave. Family was united that they could not send Cleveland off without both parents at the side of their loved one.

That morning, the Premier was advised by the Department of Corrective Services of police security concerns for the safety of the custodial officers who would escort Cleveland’s dad. The Department advised it revoked approvals for the father to attend.

I dispute any grounds for such concerns. However, I prefer to not delve into this.

Megan contacted Police Minister Paul Papalia’s office. She texted the Premier relentlessly. I, too, reached out to Roger. I also reached out to the Department of Justice and then the police to discuss the security concerns.

The hours passed. I know enough of Roger, that he knows right from wrong. I made it clear, though the day was marred, that the father must attend and the funeral proceed. If the funeral did not go ahead, albeit now no longer in the morning but closer to sunset, this travesty would long haunt Western Australia, on a scale of intensity and divides not seen in decades.

At first, the Government and the relevant departments and authorities declared there would not be a reversal. The Department of Justice rushed a media release that the father would not attend.

The family was guided by Cleveland’s spirit. He wanted both mum and dad by his side, as they declared they would not leave their sit-in outside the police station.

I kept reaching out to Roger. And so, the Premier followed rightfulness. Hence a “crisis meeting” was convened by the Commissioner of Corrective Services. A new “safety plan” was approved.

Megan contacted WA Police and the Police Commissioner. They offered to use their plane stabled at Jandakot Airport to head to Geraldton Airport and to fly Wayne to Meekatharra. They arrived at 3 PM. The service began at 3:30 PM.

With father and mother by their son's side, hundreds mourned his mortal passing, and as the sun began its fade, so Cleveland was covered by the red earth he once walked.

Those who cruelly stole his mortal living are not yet held to account. Sixty days have passed since his eyes closed for the last time, in a dank concrete dungeon in Unit 18.

How is it that those who fabricated welfare checks have not been charged? How is it those who locked him in a cell endlessly for months and in which his eyes' last sight dwindled to fading light and into endless darkness, those who cruelled hopeless fate have not been held to account?

How is it that the people who designed and approved the inhumane Unit 18 have not been named and brought to account? Atonement calls. Family and others say it is an evil place where hopelessness destroys mortal life. Charges? And the guards who ticked off welfare checks at the beginning of their shifts — 60 days later, since a child’s eyes closed in that cell, never to open again, how have there been no charges? Fated a child's death in that dank, dark dungeon.

If you would like to speak to someone about suicide you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Gerry Georgatos is a suicide prevention and poverty researcher with an experiential focus on social justice.

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