Malcolm Brown | SMH | July 28 2011
Two prison officers who were escorts to a group of prisoners when one of the prisoners died of a heart attack received withering criticism from counsel in the Coroner's Court in Glebe today.
Ragni Mathur, representing the family of the deceased prisoner, Mark Holcroft, said the officers, Peter Sheppard and Clive Bateman, had demonstrated an "indifference" to the welfare of the prisoners they were escorting.
The trip, on August 27, 2009, was from Bathurst jail to Mannus Correctional Centre near Tumbarumba in southern New South Wales. It lasted four and half hours and, according to evidence before Deputy State Coroner Paul MacMahon, the prisoners were not given water or allowed a toilet stop.
Mr Holcroft, 59, who was starting a seven-month sentence for a drink-driver offence, suffered a heart attack towards the end of the trip.
Despite screaming and thumping on the sides of the van by the seven other prisoners in Mr Holcroft's compartment - a commotion lasting about 40 minutes and still continuing when the truck arrived at Mannus - officers Sheppard and Bateman did not stop.
Officer Sheppard, who was monitoring a video camera surveying the compartment where Mr Holcroft was being transported, has told the inquest that he did not see anything unusual. Both officers have said that they heard the thumping and thought the prisoners were just acting up. They could not find the handset for the two-way intercom system and had no way of communicating with the prisoners.
Ms Mathur said that Mr Holcroft had been examined on August 20, 2009, but warning signs of his heart condition had been misdiagnosed by a Justice Health doctor, Suresh Badami. When he suffered the heart attack, he would have needed immediate attention within 10 minutes, probably involving a defibrillator, to save his life.
Ms Mathur said that it was inconceivable that Officer Sheppard would not have seen that there was something seriously wrong, given that Mr Holcroft was unconscious and lying on a seat. Nor was it feasible that both officers could have heard the commotion going on for so long and not stopped to find out what was wrong. One possibility was that Officer Sheppard had seen what was happening and had chosen to ignore it. He might also have not bothered to check at all or had turned off the monitor.
If he had just ignored it, "it demonstrated an absolute and complete indifference to the welfare of inmates, in contravention of his duty of care", she said. He might also have been influenced by an "obsession with security rather than well-being", she said.
She also directed criticism at Officer Bateman, who had been driving but whose demeanour in the witness box had demonstrated indifference to the needs of the inmates and their well-being.
She submitted that Mr MacMahon in his findings should express a concern that that indifference was endemic to correctional service staff.
The submission continues this afternoon.