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The death in custody of a Barkindji man who was forcibly removed from his family as a child and spent his life in state institutions “brings great shame on white Australia” and highlights the role of intergenerational trauma in incarceration of Aboriginal people in custody, the New South Wales coroner has found.
Fifty-seven-year-old Kevin Bugmy died of a heart attack in Cessnock jail in April 2019. Most of his life had been spent in state institutions, from his childhood as a ward of the state to his adulthood in prison. Bugmy had a solvent abuse problem and the care he received for his chronic substance use “over many years was grossly inadequate”, deputy coroner Harriet Grahame said.
“Kevin was held in continuous custody for 36 years for an offence he had committed at just 20 years of age. He was continually refused release without ever being offered appropriate case management for issues that had been clearly identified for decades,” Grahame said.
“By the time of his death, Kevin had understandably lost all hope of ever being released.”
Grahame said Corrective Services NSW should develop an “Aboriginal-specific” drug and alcohol program and said she was “astounded” that such a program does not already exist.
Bugmy was transferred between jails an astonishing 50 times in 19 years. Grahame said excessive transfers may be “inhumane” and recommended that Corrective Services NSW review such transfers.
“The rights of long-term prisoners should be specifically considered,” she said. “Excessive inter-facility transfers may be inhumane and in the case of Aboriginal inmates, it may exacerbate social and family dislocation health issues and cultural disconnection.”
Graham said Bugmy’s inquest raises “very significant issues” and her recommendations provide “modest suggestions but achievable change”.
She also said the parole system had failed him.
She accepted Bugmy’s sister Doreen Webster’s view that Kevin’s inability to get parole and his substance use “became intertwined”.
Webster had told the court during the inquest: “It breaks my heart thinking about the change in him, thinking about him just giving up and sniffing those substances each night. That’s a sure way to die. But when you’re locked up like an animal like that, without any hope, what’s the use?”
Webster was seven and Bugmy was three when they were forcibly removed from their family at Wilcannia in far-western NSW.
Webster, who was sent to the punitive Cootamundra Girls Home, met her brother for the first time in their 50s, when he was already in jail. “We just hugged and hugged,” she said outside the court.
Webster said Kevin was one of four brothers. All of them have passed away.
“They’re all gone now. They had a rough life, they just couldn’t deal with life because it was too hard, all this.
“Kevin should have had the chance to become an elder to his family and community. But he never even had the chance to become a father,” she said outside the court.
“Instead, he spent most of his life trapped in institutions that kept him from his family, community and culture. First as a ward of the state, and then as a prisoner.
“Kevin didn’t get the help he deserved – not health-wise, physically, mentally or spiritually. They probably look after their dog better than they looked after my brother.”
Webster said she had a room made up for Kevin, ready for when he was released, “but he never got to stay with me”.
“Throughout Kevin’s 57 years, the state took away the things that mattered most. His family, his freedom, his hope. And finally, his life. To them, Kevin is just another statistic. Another Black death in custody.
“Right now, it’s Naidoc week. The government, Corrective Services, Justice Health and DCJ will be holding Naidoc events, doing their acknowledgements of country and talking about respect.
“But here’s the real truth: it’s been over 30 years since we had the royal commission into Aboriginal people dying in custody, and they keep letting it happen. How come?”
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