Gerry Georgatos – National Indigenous Times reporter & PhD researcher Custodial Systems and Deaths in Custody
Anthony Axtell is dead - he is now another Australian prison custodial death statistic however the manner of his death indicts so much of what is wrong with the Australian prison system. Australia has one of the world's worst deaths in custody records.
He died 11am last Thursday in Royal Perth Hospital with his mum and dad, his brother, sister-in-law, two year old nephew Xavier at his bedside and the SERCO contracted guards outside his hospital bedroom door. For the most part of his hospital stays this frail man, who could barely breathe, and had nowhere to run other than into death itself, was shackled in chains to his hospital bed even when his toddler children were visiting him. His story is one that is a must for the light of day.
Nearly three months ago, his brother, Darren, phoned me from Brisbane after listening to an hour long interview with me and 98.9FM’s Tiga Bayles on the Let's Talk program - we discussed deaths in custody and the prison system as failed for both Aboriginal peoples and non-Aboriginal peoples.
World renowned prisoner reform and restorative justice advocate, Dr Brian Steels slammed the inhumanity of Australia's prisons. "Somebody has to take much of the responsibility for the failure of the penal estate. Collectively, 'tough on crime' has been translated into 'treat people not how you would want to be treated, but show no mercy'."
"We are turning offenders into victims of State crime."
Dr Steels said that Mr Axtell should have been shown compassion. "With compassion and empathy, then and only then will we see prisoners learn from the experience of prison."
Former Deaths in Custody Watch Committee WA chairperson and law student Marianne Mackay said when people are treated like Mr Axtell was the whole system is broken, and “what hope does anyone have? – a Royal Commission from start to finish is what’s needed” because she said obviously the last commission into deaths in custody is not being listened to.
“Everyone needs to know about Mr Axtell’s story if we’re going to have any hope of reforming the whole prison system and save lives," she said.
Mr Axtell sought my assistance with his 38 year old brother who was on remand in a Western Australian prison – firstly Hakea and then Casuarina.
On Thursday Mr Axtell said, “We stayed by his bedside for 45 days till he passed away an hour ago.”
His death will be classified as ‘natural’ however there was nothing ‘natural’ about the manner of his death – the vacuum of inhumanity – shackled in chains to his hospital bed.
He was the father of three young children. He was a son to Brian and Elaine.
His sister-in-law Nicolette Axtell, a Murri woman from Stradbroke Island, said, “His heart finally gave out – dying of heart failure.”
“The reason he was being held on remand is that he breached a domestic restraining order. He was picked up by police at his house when in fact his girlfriend visited him and then decided to look after him after he had been in a car accident. She had unsuccessfully tried to revoke the restraining order.”
He had been waiting for a new heart – he was to be placed on the donor organ waiting list. Mrs Axtell said, “When he was taken away by the police his girlfriend warned them of his heart condition and gave them his medication and that it is a must it is administered daily – it kept his heart going.”
“At Hakea Prison they administered his medication on the first day but when asked for it the next day the guards gave him Panadol and told him to lie down when he said he was not feeling well.”
“He called his mother from prison for help as they were not looking after him.”
“After two days without his medication he collapsed. He was taken to Royal Perth Hospital’s emergency unit and then into Intensive Care.”
“A prison official advised us that they were really concerned and did say, ‘We thought we lost him.’”
Mother, Elaine Axtell said “I was told that Tony was in a critical condition. He was transferred into Coronary Care. The Coronary Care staff advised us that the reason Tony was in hospital was that the prison failed to give him his medication, which everyone knew was vital.”
“When it came time for Tony to leave RPH, we made a number of calls to ensure that he would be sent to Casuarina Prison as it has an infirmary.”
However everyone knew that a man waiting for a new heart should have remained in hospital and not in a prison infirmary. The DCS will respond to questions from The National Indigenous Times.
“After three days in Casuarina Tony was feeling unwell and struggled with breathing. He said he was ‘cold’. The duty nurse said, ‘You have got blankets and your medication’ and that she could not do anymore for him and slammed the glass window in his face.”
After repeated calls from family members Mr Axtell was transported back to hospital.
“He ended up with pneumonia, and blood on his lungs from his heart.”
“Tony was being prepared for a heart clamping procedure to prolong his life while waiting for a transplant. He was a prime candidate at this stage.”
“In an about-face the doctor revised his medication and not sure how he would respond to it as they sent him back to prison.”
This time around the health system let him down telling the family there were not enough beds – The National Indigenous Times has contacted the Health Department.
“How much is a human life worth?” said his father, Brian Axtell.
He was back at Casuarina only three days before breathing difficulties and kidney pains succumbed him to a shell of a man –losing four kilograms in four days, unable to eat.
After more pleas from family this time to the Prison Superintendent an ambulance was called in.
Over the next few weeks the family would endure the anguish of his deterioration.
He was transferred to Sir Charles Gardiner Hospital for the heart clamping – a last shot at life. During the next 48 hours he lost 15 kilograms of weight and the procedure did not take place - his kidneys were the first to go.
“This is his story – please tell me, if he wasn’t a prisoner, would he have been treated like this?" said his father.
“He was shackled the entire time he was in hospital, even though he could barely move. His shackles were only removed on August 14, four weeks before he passed away and only because his mother petitioned to have them removed.”
Our legislators and policy makers have much to answer for and bureaucracy is not an excuse. The National Indigenous Times has highlighted this year the predicament of an Aboriginal prison inmate giving birth while shackled in chains – of Noongar Stanley Farmer having part of hishand amputated because prison staff refused to believe him that burns from boiling water were as serious as he begged them to believe, and we broke the sad story of two young brothers attempting suicide within 12 hours of each other at Greenough Prison - and well the list of such stories in just this year alone - Western Australia and nationwide - is too long to include but you know it.
Dr Steels is correct in that we have to move away from “crime and punishment” and work with people, alongside them, restoratively, humanely; in order that we make society humane.
Darren Axtell - 0412 878 453
Gerry Georgatos - 0430 657 309
The National Indigenous Times contacted State Labor and Greens shadow ministers for the Department of Corrective Services, Fran Logan and Giz Watson, and on September 25 the following questions will be asked in the Legislative Assembly by Mr Logan:
8724.Mr F.M. Logan to the Minister for Corrective Services
I draw the Minister's attention to the sudden death of Mr Anthony Nigel Axtell at Royal Perth Hospital on 18 September 2012 whilst in the custody and care of the Department of Corrective Services and I ask:
(a) have the family of Mr Axtell asked for his body to be flown back to his home town of Brisbane, Queensland and was this request rejected by the Department of Corrective Services;
(b) if Mr Axtell's family's request for repatriation of his body has been rejected, on what grounds and why; and
(c) what cost would the Department incur if it was to agree to the repatriation of Mr Axtell's body to Brisbane?
FAMILY FURY AT PRISONER'S DEATH
Wednesday September 19 2012
Jane Hammond, journalist for The West Australian
The family of a 38 year-old man who died in Royal Perth Hospital yesterday while under the care of the Department of Corrective Services say he would still be alive if he had received proper medical assistance in prison.
Anthony Nigel Axtell, a seriously ill father of three and a former rugby league player, was on remand over a breach of a restraining order when he was taken to Hakea Prison earlier this year.
His brother Darren said prison authorities had declined initially to allow Anthony, who had a serious heart condition, access to his medication resulting in his heart problems getting worse. He collapsed after becoming unable to breathe and was then sent to hospital.
Mr Axtell said his brother was assessed at Royal Perth Hospital and told he qualified for a heart clamping procedure that would have prolonged his life long enough to get a heart transplant, but sent back to prison for a week to wait for the operation.
He was sent to Casuarina Prison but within days became seriously ill with a kidney infection.
Mr Axtell said his brother was refused assistance for several days despite being bent over in pain and it was not until his mother Elaine begged the prison to send him to hospital that he was returned to Royal Perth in a critical condition.
Mr Axtell said Anthony was then told that because his condition had deteriorated he no longer qualified for the heart procedure.
“He fought for 45 days and died this morning,” Mr Axtell said yesterday.
A spokesman for the Department said Mr Axtell’s death was being treated as a death in custody and would be the subject of a coronial inquiry.
“As with all deaths in custody, WA Police will prepare a report for the Coroner to asses the circumstances and cause of death,” the spokesman said.
“DCS does not comment in regards to the management and medical treatment of individual prisoners.”
Deaths in Custody Watch Committee spokesman Marc Newhouse said the case highlighted the need for health services in the prison system to be handled by the Health Department rather than the DCS.
PhD researcher on deaths in custody, human rights activist, Gerry Georgatos said Mr Axtell’s death was the result of failures in the prison system.
"There was nothing ‘natural’ about the way Mr Axtell died,” Mr Georgatos said.
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