SYDNEY, Australia — For almost three years, the family of an Indigenous Australian man who died in a Sydney prison complex after being pinned down by correctional officers has waited for answers.
Their wait will continue. On Friday, an Inquest into the 2015 death of David Dungay Jr., 26, who told officers at least 12 times before he died that he couldn’t breathe, was adjourned until March of next year. The news angered his family members, who had traveled five hours to Sydney for the inquest, which began on July 16.
“It’s been such a slow and very agonizing wait this past two weeks,” Hector Dungay, a member of the family, said Friday. “We thought by today it’d be all finished and over with.”
He said the family could not grieve until the inquest had reached a conclusion.
David Dungay Jr., a member of the Dunghutti people from a riverside town in New South Wales, suffered from diabetes, schizophrenia and asthma. He was serving a nine-year prison sentence for an attempted sex offense, assault and taking part in a robbery.
In December of 2015, a team of officers forcibly moved him from one cell to another after he refused to hand over a snack, and a nurse gave him a chemical sedative. Minutes after he told officers he couldn’t breathe, he became unresponsive. Officers administered CPR, but Mr. Dungay was declared dead about an hour after he was first moved.
His final moments were captured in graphic hand-held video footage, which was screened publicly for the first time at the inquest.
Over the last two weeks, evidence has emerged that five of the six officers who moved Mr. Dungay had not received proper training about positional asphyxia, which is when someone’s physical position prevents them from breathing. The decision to move Mr. Dungay and the response of the medical staff have also drawn scrutiny.
The evidence presented so far at the inquest has fed long-simmering outrage from Mr. Dungay’s family and others in the Indigenous community, who say they are demanding accountability from institutions that treat them like second-class citizens. The decision not to resume the inquest until March was the result of longer-than-expected witness testimony that has lengthened the inquiry.
Mr. Dungay’s mother, Leetona Dungay, 58, said the inquest had reopened old wounds and obscured tender memories of her son.
“I just miss how he’d call me ‘Ma,’” she said. “He’d call me ‘Ma.’ He never called me mum.”
She is considering legal action against the correctional officers and medical workers, she said.
“In all areas they neglected their duty of care,” she said, referring to the officers and medical staff who gave evidence at the inquest. She said she would fight so that no mother would ever have to go through her experience.
Indigenous Australians are one of the most incarcerated groups on earth. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people represent 27 percent of Australia’s prison population, despite making up about 3 percent of the country’s total population.
In 1991, a royal commission that was formed to look into Aboriginal deaths in custody made 339 recommendations, but many of them were never properly carried out, according to a report commissioned by Amnesty International Australia.
The number of incarcerated Indigenous prisoners has soared since the commission was formed. In fact, every detained child in the Northern Territory is Aboriginal, according to data from June.
The Dungay case has amplified the existing distrust between Aboriginal communities and the country’s institutions, said Josephine Cashman, executive chairwoman of the nonprofit Big River Impact Foundation. “The community is reluctant to report things to police because of things like this,” she said.
Ms. Cashman, an Aboriginal lawyer, said the government needed to review the training of correctional service officers and revisit the recommendations from the 1991 royal commission.
“Are our prisons rehabilitative environments?” she asked. “Or are they actually making people worse?”
The evidence presented in the case has already led to some reforms. This week, Kevin Corcoran, the assistant commissioner for corrective services for New South Wales, testified at the inquest that the agency was developing a new training course for officers who might use force on inmates.
The course will involve role playing and include training on avoiding the risk of positional asphyxia, the agency said.
Before the inquest adjourned on Friday, Derek Lee, a deputy state coroner, apologized to the family for the delay.
Mr. Dungay’s mother said she was hopeful for a just verdict.
“I’ve got faith. And I’ve got a lot of support with me here,” Ms. Dungay said, adding that the video of her son’s final moments would allow everyone to see the truth.
“Australia, I will let them be the judge,” she said.
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