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The family of Tane Chatfield spoke at a recent rally, wanting answers about the death of their son in custody. Their fight for justice now takes them to the NSW coroners court.
Colin and Nikola Chatfield were two of the many family members who stood before the 2,000 strong crowd at Sydney’s 5 July Stop Black Deaths in Custody rally to speak out about the death of their son, Tane, in a NSW correctional facility.
Just after 9 am on 20 September 2017, Tane Chatfield was found unconscious in his cell at Tamworth Correctional Centre. The 22-year-old Gomeroi and Wakka Wakka man subsequently died in a hospital bed two days later.
Corrective Services NSW has asserted from the beginning that there was nothing suspicious about the death of the father-of-one. The department told his family that he had taken his own life. However, his parents have always maintained that this version of events just doesn’t add up.
According to the authorities’ account, Tane hung himself in his prison cell just after returning from a hospital visit relating to a seizure the night prior. But his family insists that the young man they’d seen that same day was in good spirits, as he expected to be released from gaol.
And it’s now left to be seen whether justice will be served, as this week, the Chatfield family and their supporters are attending the inquiry into the death in custody of Tane at the NSW Coroners Court.
Justice for Tane
“This is my son, Tane,” said Colin Chatfield, pointing to an image on a placard. “He was murdered at the hands of Correctional Services officers at Tamworth. We didn’t even get a phone call from Corrective Services. We were approached by our daughters.”
“They said my son hung himself standing up-kneeling down. How is that possible?” Chatfield asked the 5 July rally gathered at Djarrbarrgalli-the Domain in Warrang-Sydney. “Yet, he had bruises all over his body – marks all over his neck.”
Chatfield told Sydney Criminal Lawyers last November that whilst his son was in hospital, some photos were taken that display injuries inconsistent with the official version of events. And after having seen the photos, this claim was supported by NITV and NSW Greens MLC David Shoebridge.
Tane’s father also makes clear that when he last saw his son in court, the young man was in a positive state of mind, as, based on recent court proceedings, it looked likely that he would be released from prison at the end of his trial, after having been held on remand for two years.
“This is a horrible thing that I don’t want anybody else to have to go through,” Chatfield said over the loudspeaker at the Domain. “We want justice for our boy, for all the cold cases, and the rest of the black deaths.”
The first day in court
The coronial inquest into the death of Tane Chatfield commenced on 13 July before NSW deputy state coroner Harriet Grahame. And on the first day of proceedings, the circumstances on the night prior to the young man’s death were looked into.
Former cellmate Darren Cutmore set out that he recalls Tane being “happy as can be”, as he was expecting to be released from prison following his court case. And the former inmate said that on that last night, he’d actually been moved out of the cell he’d been sharing with Tane.
Tamworth Correctional Centre officer David Mezanaric explained that Tane had two seizures on the night prior to his death – one in his cell and another in a treatment room – before being taken to hospital.
Indigenous Social Justice Association (ISJA) secretary Raul Bassi attended the first day of the inquiry. He said on Tuesday that footage had been shown in court, which captured Tane returning from hospital and walking back to his cell an hour before his death.
Tane was “walking normal, absolutely coordinated”, Bassi said. And he reiterated that from what was discussed that the young First Nations man was looking forward to being released from prison.
The death toll continues
Following the first day of proceedings in Lidcombe, reports emerged of another Aboriginal death in custody having taken place at WA’s Acacia Prison. And according to the Guardian’s Deaths Inside database, this would bring the total number of First Nations custody deaths to 438, since 1991.
As a result of the May 25 killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, there’s been a wider focus in this country on the decades-long campaign to bring about an end to Aboriginal deaths in custody.
Right before the June 6 Black Lives Matter rallies swept the nation, Gomeroi activist Gwenda Stanley explained that the Stop Aboriginal Deaths in Custody movement is calling for an independent investigative body that can look into these incidents.
While at the 7 July rally, Mr Chatfield said that the nation needs to change the laws so that corrective services and police don’t continue to investigate their own, as not one police or prison officer has been convicted in relation to any of the over 400 deaths since the early 90s.
And he added that these circumstances are a loophole that European authorities have been using since they first arrived on these shores, so as to enable those working in law enforcement and corrections to avoid being held to account for any deaths occurring in their custody.
“But, with all your votes, signatures and petitions, we can get the law changed and have independent investigations,” Chatfield told those gathered at the Domain. “We only need 5% of voters to change this law.”
Last Sunday, the Chatfield family, their supporters and ISJA led a silent march through the Sydney CBD, calling for justice for Tane. As they walked through the city, the demonstrators held placards drawing attention to numerous other Indigenous people who’ve died in custody.
The procession made its way to the square out the front of the Corrective Services NSW offices in Chippendale, where the Chatfield family spelt out “Tane” using candles.
“I took two candles,” said Nikola, Tane’s mother, before those gathered at the vigil, “one to honour my boy – first off – and then to honour our walk from this day forth.”