Shackles of shame: Family wait for answers after Eric's death

Photograph shows Anthony James Whittaker, photographed at the Newtown Mission Church today. Mr Whittaker has been visiting the community church since his son Erik was found dead in Parklea jail in July. Photograph by Dean Sewell. SMH News. Taken Monday 27th November 2017
Photograph shows Anthony James Whittaker, photographed at the Newtown Mission Church today. Mr Whittaker has been visiting the community church since his son Erik was found dead in Parklea jail in July. Photograph by Dean Sewell. SMH News. Taken Monday 27th November 2017

Jamie Whittaker likes to remember his son Eric at his best - the "funny bloke" making his aunties cackle, dancing like Michael Jackson and doting on his children.

Then, when he shuts his eyes, he sees his son on a hospital bed, machines pumping oxygen to keep him alive. His eyes are closed. If it weren't for the tubes and monitors, he could be sleeping.

But it is the sight of Eric Whittaker's feet that haunts his father. They lie limp on white bed linen, chained together with shackles.

"There was no dignity," he said. "It's like he's an animal ... It's not as if he could get up and run away."

Twenty-six years after the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody recommended restraints be used as "a last resort", prison guards in a Sydney hospital shackled a dying, unconscious Indigenous man.

This is the scene that confronted distraught family members, captured in a photograph they now want people to see.

It has been almost five months since life support was turned off and the 36-year-old Mr Whittaker died in custody at Westmead Hospital in Sydney following an aneurysm.

Corrective Services say Mr Whittaker was treated in line with protocol. They are not treating his death as suspicious.

But the family say they are still in the dark about many of the basic facts surrounding his death.

A straight story

"The family should get a very straight story," said Corrective Services Commissioner Peter Severin, who agreed to speak with The Sun-Herald about the case.

Eric Whittaker was arrested on Tuesday, June 27. No stranger to police, he was a drug abuser and homeless when officers charged him with offences including possession of stolen goods, carrying a knife in a public place and failure to appear before court.

"Bail was refused, most probably because of his inability to have a place of residence," Mr Severin said.

On the evening of Friday, June 30, he was transferred from Surry Hills to Parklea jail in Sydney's north-west. On arrival, he was automatically classified as a maximum-security inmate because Parklea does not conduct security assessments on weekends.

About 8am on Sunday, July 2, corrections officers realised something was wrong, they said.

Doctors were later told Mr Whittaker had been in an isolation cell, incontinent, agitated and handcuffed, The Sun-Herald understands.

"He had trashed his cell," Mr Severin, said.

"He was incoherent, he was quite uncontrollable, so that's when medical intervention immediately commences."

But the family say they were given different versions of events by hospital staff, police and Corrective Services. Some were told he had collapsed in an exercise yard, others that he fell in his cell.

Mr Severin said if the family received different information, "that is very regrettable".

Eric Whittaker's aunt Diane Whittaker.

Eric Whittaker's aunt Diane Whittaker. Photo: Kate Geraghty

'Doesn't look good'

In the infirmary at Parklea jail on the Sunday morning, Mr Whittaker's condition was worsening.

He was rushed in an ambulance to Blacktown Hospital at 10.47am, bound hand and foot, under the supervision of two guards. Combative on arrival, his condition then deteriorated further, The Sun-Herald understands.

Doctors put a breathing tube down his throat, after which he went into cardiac arrest. A brain scan revealed the aneurysm and bleeding.

Corrective Services have declined to say when Mr Whittaker had fallen unconscious, directing medical inquiries to Justice Health.

Justice Health referred questions to the Western Sydney Local Health District, which declined to comment, citing privacy laws and the upcoming coronial inquest.

On the Sunday evening, the hospital called Mr Whittaker's next of kin, his aunt Natasha Whittaker.

"They told me that he is there and it doesn't look good," she said.

She immediately began calling family members including Mr Whittaker's father, Jamie.

"I just slumped down on the couch, in disbelief," he said.

Just before midnight, Mr Whittaker was transferred to the intensive care unit at Westmead. When he arrived he was unresponsive.

His hand cuffs were taken off, but, after briefly being removed, his ankle cuffs were left on, the commissioner said.

'The God's honest truth'

The next day, the first visitors to arrive were three family members, including his aunt Daisy Fernando, who said she could not feel a pulse.

"I'll tell you the God's honest truth, when I walked in, my nephew was dead," Ms Fernando said. He was only being kept alive by machines.

One of the family went to check whether he was comfortable.

"When I lifted the blanket up I noticed the shackles around his ankles," said the relative, who did not wish to be named. A "big fight" followed.

The relative said they "freaked out" and took a photograph of the restraints straight away, before asking the two Corrective Services guards to remove them.

"They said this was our orders, we have to do it," the relative said. About 40 minutes or so later the guards called their supervisor and then removed the cuffs.

It had been 15 hours since Mr Whittaker arrived unresponsive at Westmead and 28 hours since he first left Parklea.

"Bloody appalling, the way they can have a man on his deathbed and still have shackles on him like that," Jamie Whittaker said.

"There is no dignity shown towards Aboriginal people when they pass away."

Ms Fernando said he was treated "like a mongrel dog".

Under security protocols, it's up to the escorting officers to make an assessment regarding the use of restraints in hospitals.

Mr Severin said Mr Whittaker's release order "clearly stipulated that he had to be restrained at all times". But he also acknowledged staff had the discretion to remove the cuffs with the approval of supervisors, who are available round the clock.

"Unfortunately we have had more incidents of restraints being removed and prisoners doing the wrong thing than we have incidents of situations where - again, only with hindsight - one can say, OK, maybe we should have removed the restraints earlier," Mr Severin said.

A protester marches on NSW Parliament House over Eric Whittaker's death.

A protester marches on NSW Parliament House over Eric Whittaker's death. Photo: Kate Geraghty

'Wrongful and criminal'

In addition to the royal commission's recommendation, a 2012 South Australian Ombudsman review found shackles should only be used as a precaution against escape, harm to self or harm to others.

Under NSW law, the unjustified use of a restraint is treated as an assault.

"I feel so ashamed that this could happen," said Thalia Anthony, an associate professor at University of Technology, Sydney who specialises in Indigenous justice.

Ms Anthony said the image of Mr Whittaker on his hospital bed reminded her of 19th century photographs of Aboriginal men in chains.

"There needs to be systemic change," Dr Anthony said. "But there also needs to be a message sent that this kind of conduct, this way of treating Aboriginal people as less than human beings is wrongful and criminal."

The family's lawyer, Stewart Levitt, who is exploring potential human rights violations and discrimination, said "we need to appoint interstate Special Prosecutors to deal with deaths in custody throughout Australia."

Mr Whittaker died in Westmead Hospital at 12.55pm on July 4.

The family said they were given 10 minutes with him after they decided to turn the machines off.

"It was a life time," Jamie Whittaker said. "It was just silence. Everyone was just standing around rubbing his head."

First ever love

Mr Whittaker's former partner, Jessica Holman, was living in Queensland when she heard he was ill. Without money for flights, she was trying to find a way to reach Sydney with their children.

The pair had separated two years earlier as Mr Whittaker struggled with drugs and alcohol. Ms Holman at one point had taken out an apprehended violence order against him.

"He was my first ever love," she said. "He's the father of my children - the bond was there. It's just that he had his own personal issues."

He died before she could reach Sydney. "I couldn't imagine getting there, if I was able to get there before he did pass, with the children, and seeing their father like that ... It's not okay."

Ms Holman and Mr Whittaker's father and mother say they have not been given an account of the events leading up to his death.

"It's a horrible thing, the feeling that people are just trying to forget about it," Ms Holman said.

The commissioner, Mr Severin, said "I would like to think" all of the information provided to The Sun-Herald had also been provided to the family.

Eric Whittaker with his son.

Eric Whittaker with his son.

'I want this out'

Parklea, a privately run prison operated by the US-owned GEO Group, has been criticised heavily for a series of security breaches this year, including one incident in which an inmate posted a YouTube video of himself with drugs and a weapon.

The NSW government renewed GEO Group's contract in October, following a review that led to 35 recommendations for improvement.

The company declined to answer questions, citing the upcoming inquest, but extended sympathies to the family. Mr Severin extended his own and said Corrective Services had helped to contribute to the cost of the burial.

Meanwhile, the family are still saving up for a headstone for Mr Whittaker's grave in Walgett cemetery.

"It's killing me, I thought he would have buried me first," his mother, Margaret Hall, said. He was her first-born, the cheeky boy who "made my grey hairs go grey".

"To see that photo, now I can't sleep," she said. "I want this out."

This story Shackles of shame: Family wait for answers after Eric's death first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.