State governments around the country are not only failing to fulfil their obligation to remove obvious hanging points in police and prison cells, they are also building new prisons that do not meet this safety standard, say human rights advocates and prison reformers.

Hanging has been the most frequent cause of deaths in prison custody since 1980, accounting for 40% of prison custody deaths nationwide and 39% in NSW. Between 2001 and 2009, NSW coroners commented on the Department’s failure to remove or screen obvious hanging points — in breach of Recommendation 165 of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody — at more than 20 inquests and made formal recommendations urging the elimination of hanging points in 2002, 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2009.

Hanging deaths have declined in the past eight years, but many argue that more deaths could be prevented if the Department was willing to dedicate the resources.

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“They use words such as ‘practical’,” John McKenzie, chief legal officer for the NSW Aboriginal Legal Service, explained to Crikey. “What they’re really saying is that they make a political decision and they think it’s too much money to spend. Hanging is one of the more prevalent ways of self harm leading to death and … really, none of the old cells have been remediated.”

Worse still is the government’s insistence on building obvious hanging points into new prisons, say human rights advocates.

“We’ve had a whole raft of prisons built [with obvious hanging points],” said Charandev Singh, a paralegal who was worked on deaths in custody inquests for almost 20 years. “You have Arthur Gorrie Correctional Centre up in Queensland, which was built with obvious hanging points above the cell door, as in bars in windows. You had Port Phillip Prison in Victoria with 16 structural hanging points in every cell. You had Fulham Correctional Centre with the same [problem], down in Victoria. You had the MRRC [Metropolitan Reception and Remand Centre] in Sydney, the largest remand and reception prison in the country — again, multiple obvious hanging points.

“To build a prison in complete defiance of a recommendation that is so obvious is just astounding… It’s inexcusable for the recommendations not to have been implemented and it’s even more inexcusable for new prisons to have been built which provide an invitation to suicide.”

Ray Jackson, president of the Indigenous Social Justice Association and long-time campaigner against Aboriginal deaths in custody, says community groups that inspected the 900-bed MRRC while it was still under construction tried in vain to warn the Department that the shower rails constituted obvious hanging points.

“We argued: those are suicide points, get rid of them, take them out now while you’re still building the jail. They waited until there were three hanging deaths off those rails and then spent something like three quarters of a million dollars changing them,” he said.

The MRRC opened at Silverwater in July 1997. The first media report of a hanging death at the prison came six months later, in January 1998.

It was not until after three men hanged themselves in the exact same manner (from the bolts used to secure notice boards to their cell walls) that Corrective Services acted on coroners’ recommendations to remove the notice boards. The findings into the third death, which occurred in 2003, noted: “The death of the deceased was the third death during a two-year period in almost the exact same manner … at the same Detention Centre.” An informal recommendation to remove the notice boards followed the first death in 2001; formal recommendations were made following both the subsequent deaths.

In July 2006, deputy state coroner Dorelle Pinch made one of the most comprehensive formal recommendations on hanging points of the past decade. The recommendation was made following the inquest into the hanging death of Long Bay prisoner Scott Simpson, a severely mentally ill man who died in the same cell where he had previously attempted to hang himself.

“The Department of Corrective Services should ensure that sufficient resources are allocated to the Working Party for the Reduction of Hanging Points, including the appointment of a full-time manager, to enable the current work of the group to be carried out at the earliest opportunity,” the recommendation said. “Additionally, the scope of works should be expanded to include, on a priority basis, all cells in maximum and medium security institutions.”

Since then hanging deaths have continued to occur in similar numbers at maximum and medium security prisons across the state, including at the Long Bay complex, the MRRC, and Bathurst, Grafton, John Morony, Lithgow, Parklea, Parramatta and Tamworth correctional centres.

The issue has also continued to surface at inquests, with deputy state coroner Paul MacMahon making formal recommendations to eliminate obvious hanging points at two separate inquests in August and September 2009.

The Department has repeatedly argued at inquest — and some coroners have agreed — that the removal of hanging points in prison cells would make prison life overly harsh for those prisoners who are not at risk of suicide or self harm. To this end, it is clear that wider questions of prisoner mental health need to be addressed at the same time as safety standards are met in prisons.

“It’s true to say that it’s simply not going to be possible to remove every possibility or every situation in which someone in custody could take their own life — and the Royal Commission was aware of that — otherwise you’d end up with naked prisoners in sterile environments and I don’t think anybody wants that,” Chris Cunneen, a professor of Justice and Social Inclusion at James Cook University, told Crikey.

“The Royal Commission made the point that human contact, human observation, was probably one of the best ways to prevent deaths in custody in the longer term, and also specific attention on prisoners that were known to be vulnerable… There’s a whole range of other things that need to be put in place and need to be understood, rather than simply removing hanging points.

“But having said that, the recommendation referred to ‘obvious hanging points’ and it’s clear there are still obvious hanging points in cells and they should be removed.”

*This is the tenth and penultimate in a series of case studies and investigative reports into prison deaths.