2 November 2023

'We want justice': ACT coronial inquest opened into Canberra Indigenous man's death in NSW jail

| Claire Fenwicke
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Alexander Maconochie Centre

TJ Dennis had been at the Alexander Maconochie Centre before he was transferred to NSW in 2021. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

CONTENT WARNING: This article discusses suicide and contains the name of an Indigenous person who has died.

There’s new hope some answers will be provided to the grieving members of the Tian-Jarrah ‘TJ Dennis’ family after the ACT Coroner opened an inquest into his death in a NSW prison.

TJ took his own life at Silverwater Correctional Complex on 5 August 2023. A coronial inquest is also underway in NSW. His name is being used with permission.

He had been transferred to NSW from the Alexander Maconochie Centre in 2021, allegedly against the advice of his medical team.

Winnunga Nimmityjah CEO Julie Tongs, who regarded Mr Dennis as part of her extended family and had been in regular contact with him until his death, said the ACT opening its own inquiry was necessary.

“A NSW coronial inquiry alone would not have produced a coronial report that would have done justice to the abhorrent treatment TJ received whilst incarcerated in the AMC,” she said.

“The coroners need to draw their conclusions from both jurisdictions to get a true understanding of the torment and mistreatment of TJ in the ACT prison, which myself, TJ’s family and others believe contributed to his death in custody in NSW.”

Ms Tongs said the circumstances leading up to Mr Dennis’ death did not start in NSW and that there were a number of questions still being asked by his family, including why advice from the Winnunga Nimmityjah Aboriginal Health & Community Services psychiatrist and clinical director were ignored after they had requested Mr Dennis be moved to Dhulwa or a NSW prison with a secure mental health facility, as well as why he was in lockdown for 311 days.

“[We also need to know] why was TJ granted day release to leave AMC for the day on his own to find accommodation and a rehab, which led to him not returning to AMC and reoffending while he was out?” Ms Tongs said.

“Did TJ’s transfer papers indicate that he had serious mental health and trauma issues and needed to be in a secure mental health facility?”

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It has been alleged Mr Dennis was the subject of a ‘hangman’ game played by AMC staff during his incarceration, where stick figures on a boat were depicted celebrating a man hanging nearby.

Ms Tongs said the impact of this on Mr Dennis’ mental health also needed to be examined.

“Was TJ moved before or after he instigated legal action against the AMC for the hangman drawing?” she said.

“TJ’s family, friends and our community need these questions answered.

“We want justice for TJ.”

Shadow Corrections Minister Elizabeth Kikkert had been poised to introduce a motion in the Legislative Assembly on Thursday (3 October) urging the standing committee on justice and community safety to hold an inquiry into the decision to transfer Mr Dennis to NSW and his engagement with ACT services prior to his transfer.

In light of the ACT Coroner opening an inquest, she withdrew this motion, stating this was a far better outcome.

“There are important questions surrounding Mr Dennis’s transfer that need to be answered, including why the ACT Government did not ensure that he was placed in a forensic mental health facility despite this having been recommended,” Ms Kikkert said.

“There are also important questions regarding his time in the ACT prison system. His medical team here advised that he be detained at Dhulwa instead of the AMC because of significant mental health issues, including previous suicide attempts.

“Why was this advice ignored?”

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The ACT Coroner will await the completion of the NSW inquest before considering whether there are any matters specifically relevant to the Territory that need further scrutiny.

If it’s decided hearings need to be held, they will also occur after the NSW inquest.

The NSW inquest is in its early stage, with no dates for hearings expected to be scheduled for some time. They could potentially be held next year.

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health issues, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14. In an emergency, contact Triple Zero (000).

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William Newby6:06 am 03 Nov 23

Everyone needs someone to blame these days, it’s the school, it’s the police, it’s the government.

Good points. And, there’s this: even the Guardian, that slanted font of progressive-left cherrypicking and moral vanity, admitted in 2021 that “Aboriginal people died at a rate of 0.13 per 100 prisoners, compared to a death rate of 0.21 per 100 prisoners for the total prison population.” That is, Aboriginal people are far *less* likely to due in prison than anyone else. But you wouldn’t know it from the way the “progressive” media keep insinuating, by deceptive lack of context, that it’s greater.

Rob McGuigan6:31 pm 02 Nov 23

Only questions that needs to be asked are these.
What was this person convicted of and therefore in a NSW prison?
Was he treated any differently to other non-indigenous prisoners?
The last being the most important.

If this person was found guilty of a crime and went to court and was sentenced according to NSW law then why should he be treated any differently to anyone else? Surely it isn’t being suggested he should be treated differently under the law because of his race?

If you commit a crime and are found guilty you have the law applied to you, irrespective of age, sexual orientation, race, age or gender. Including this person.

He was convicted and imprisoned in the ACT. His medical team recommended detention in a forensic mental health unit because of severe mental illness. Didn’t happen. Instead, he was kept in isolation for more than 300 days. At some point, he found out that prison staff were playing a ‘hangman’ game using him as the victim.

Two years ago, the ACT transferred him to the NSW system. Again, the professional recommendation was for placement in a forensic mental health lock-up. He had already attempted suicide multiple times. ACT didn’t push the matter, and so, as predicted, he killed himself. You may not care, but when people are in custody, the law sure as hell does.

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