Family of Aboriginal man who died in custody say Covid restrictions prevented them visiting him

The family of an Aboriginal man who died in a New South Wales jail say their “complete shock” has been compounded by Covid restrictions that prevented them from visiting him in person for 18 months before his sudden death.

Frank “Gud” Coleman, a 43-year-old Ngemba man, was found unresponsive in his cell on the morning of Thursday 8 July at Long Bay jail.

Coleman’s family and the Aboriginal Legal Service NSW/ACT said they were demanding answers.

“Frank was healthy. His death came as a complete shock to us,” Skye Hipwell, Coleman’s ex-partner and the mother of three of his children, said.

“Covid restrictions impacted our ability to visit and Frank was moved around a lot between prisons. There were quarantine periods whenever he was moved. At times he was several hours’ drive from Sydney,” Hipwell said.

“We understand he didn’t have any visitors for several months and that’s an agonising period of time to go without any physical contact with your siblings, your parents, your children.”

Corrective Services NSW confirmed a 43-year-old man died at Long Bay early on Thursday morning but disputed claims that the family were prevented from visiting for 18 months.

“We recognise that contact visits are extremely important to inmates and their loved ones,” a Corrective Services NSW spokeswoman said.

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“There were restrictions to all in-person visits between 16 March and 23 November last year, during which time we worked hard to increase inmates’ contact with families via phone and video visits.

“In-person visits were available to family members between 23 November 2020 and 24 June 2021, when restrictions to in-person visits were reintroduced.”

The CEO of the Aboriginal Legal Service NSW/ACT, Karly Warner, said the service will support the family during the coronial inquest.

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“It’s devastating beyond measure to have this conversation with yet another Aboriginal family whose loved one has died alone behind bars,” Warner said.

“Earlier this year Australia marked the 30th anniversary of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. Yet federal and state governments refuse to conclude the royal commission’s unfinished business. Life-saving recommendations remain on the shelf while people like Frank suffer lonely and preventable deaths,” Warner said.

Coleman is one of at least 478 Aboriginal people to die in prison and police custody nationally since the royal commission ended in 1991.

His is the fourth death since April, which marked the 30th anniversary of the royal commission’s findings, and the ninth death in custody nationally since the start of this year.

Coleman’s family is calling for a coronial inquest to be scheduled soon as practicable. They say lengthy delays between a custodial death and any inquest are “unacceptable”.

“There’s no finality, it just goes on and on and on. The thought of having to wait years for an answer about why he died and the cause is really distressing,” Hipwell said.

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