‘We weren’t afforded dignity’: family had to phone corrective services to ask if father had died
The family of an Aboriginal man who died in a New South Wales prison says it took authorities six hours to notify them, and the news came several hours after they received a message from a relative on Facebook.
Frank “Gud” Coleman, a 43-year-old Ngemba man, was found dead in his Long Bay cell early on Thursday 8 July.
His daughter, Lakota Coleman, and former partner, Skye Hipwell, told Guardian Australia a relative had sent them a message on Facebook “to say he had been found unresponsive” and they contacted Corrective Services NSW.
“We weren’t afforded any sort of dignity and respect there, in being informed of his passing,” Hipwell said. “I then contacted corrections to say this is what we’ve heard and they’ve gotten back to us and said ‘Oh yes, sorry to inform you but he passed away this morning’. That was a good six hours after [his death]. I don’t think we were told until nearly lunchtime.”
Corrective Services NSW said it was the role of police to notify next of kin about any death in custody.
“Corrective Services NSW notifies NSW police immediately following a death in custody and provides next of kin contact details from our records. In this instance notification was delayed because the contact details we had been provided were incorrect,” a spokesperson said.
“Information regarding deaths in custody is handled sensitively and respectfully, with the utmost consideration given to the loved ones of the person who has died.”
Police told the Guardian “the man’s nominated next of kin were informed by NSW police in line with standard operating procedures” and a report was being prepared for the coroner.
Hipwell said Coleman had suffered mental health issues, exacerbated by the shooting death of their 20-year-old son, Ricardo.
Ricardo Coleman was shot and killed in the street near his home in 2016. Three years later, his killer was convicted of manslaughter and is serving a 16-year sentence. A coronial inquest is due later this year.
“The decline in his mental health from there was quite rapid,” Hipwell said. “That had an emotional impact on him.”
Hipwell said Frank Coleman had served 18 months of a three-year sentence when he died but had not had any in-person visits during that time, due to Covid restrictions. She said he had been moved to three different NSW jails before being sent to Long Bay.
“Obviously corrective services have got their thing for Covid but when you’re several hours away and you’re having to rely on public transport, how do you get to visit people and try and fit within the confines of whether they’re in isolation due to Covid?”
Corrective Services NSW said there were restrictions to all in-person visits last year to maintain Covid safety.
“We recognise that contact visits are extremely important to inmates and their loved ones,” a spokesperson said. “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.”
But Hipwell said: “A six-minute phone call may seem quite long for some people but if you’ve got a lot of grief and trauma, which he did, how do you have those conversations within a six-minute block?”
Coleman is the ninth Aboriginal person to die in custody since March this year, and one of at least 478 since the end of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody in 1991.
“He’s not another number, he’s an individual,” his daughter, Lakota Coleman, said. “We would like for him to be remembered as a loving, staunch man, proud of his cultural heritage and of his children that are still here and, unfortunately, one that passed away.
“Dad was a person that made everyone smile and laugh. Anyone that met him couldn’t walk away from a conversation without laughing or smiling, or being in a good mood.”
Now, the family will have to endure two coronial inquests.
“I would never want any family to have to go through this,” Hipwell said. “I can’t even explain what it feels like to lose your child. My children have had to suffer the loss of a brother, and now their father. That’s two Aboriginal men in their lives, in a short span of four years, that have gone, with no explanation to us.
“We’re never going to get any finality where Ricardo’s death is concerned, but now the impact of [Frank’s death] upon my children and also the Aboriginal men in his family, and his father, is absolutely extraordinary.”
NSW Greens MP David Shoebridge said the level of disrespect shown to many First Nations families after a death in custody was totally unacceptable “but it is far from uncommon”.
Shoebridge was a member of a parliamentary inquiry into the high level of First Nations people in custody, which tabled its final report in February. The committee – comprising Liberal, Labor, Greens, Nationals and One Nation MPs – made 39 recommendations, to which the NSW government has until 15 October to respond.
Shoebridge said that response was urgently needed.
“After so many deaths in custody just this year, the NSW government is still not prioritising its response to the most recent call for reforms on deaths in custody,” he said. “This is a crisis, it needs to be treated like a crisis, not shelved for another 30 years.”
The NSW attorney general, Mark Speakman, said the government was “closely and carefully” considering the recommendations.
The rate of Aboriginal incarceration was a “national tragedy for which there’s no single or simple solution,” he said.
“I can’t begin to imagine the trauma and grief Mr Coleman’s family must be feeling following his tragic death.
“In NSW, Aboriginal people make up approximately 3% of the general population, but about a quarter of the adult prison population. This – plain and simple – is a national tragedy.
“In the criminal justice system, we’re implementing a range of initiatives to address this horrific overrepresentation – including record investments to reduce reoffending and increased opportunities for community-based sentences. However, we can and we must do better.”