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Social justice campaigners and rights advocates are calling for the end to indiscriminate use of restraints and shackling of prisoners while they are in hospital care. Many have called the wholesale use of restraints as draconian, inhumane – Aboriginal mothers have been shackled to stirrups during birth, heart patients shackled by their ankles to a hospital bed.

Recently, Alice Springs Coroners Court heard that 56 year-old Peter Clarke died last year in Alice Springs Hospital, one week after he was due for parole, and till near the end he was shackled to his prison bed. He did not have a history of violence, was a father of nine and was a minor offender. His family told the Coroner that to this day they “are shattered by the indignity of his death, the inhumanity of his shackling by the ankle to the bed, treated as if an animal.”

In June last year, I was contacted by the family of a prisoner who was on death’s door but he too, like Mr Clarke, was shackled to a hospital bed even when his family visited.

The prisoner’s name was Anthony Axtell. He is now another prison custodial death statistic and the manner of his death indicts so much of what is wrong with the Australian prison system, and the consciousness that underwrites it.

Mr Axtell died on a Thursday morning in September last year, at Royal Perth Hospital, with his mum and dad, his brother, sister-in-law, and his two-year-old nephew Xavier at his bedside while the SERCO contracted guards stood outside the door. For the most part of his hospital stays this frail man, who at most times towards the end could barely breathe, and had nowhere to run to other than into death itself, was shackled to his hospital bed – even while his toddler children visited him.

His story is one that is a must for the light of day.

Three months before his death, his brother Darren phoned me from Brisbane after listening to an hour long interview with 98.9FM’s Tiga Bayles and myself on the Let’s Talk Program. We had been discussion the prison system – as has failed both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples.

Prison reform advocate and restorative justice advocate, Dr Brian Steels criticises the inhumanity which holds together Australia’s prison system. “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, Marianne Mackay said “when people are treated like Mr Axtell was then we can see the whole system is broken.”

“What hope does anyone have when people are treated like this?”

“This is not an isolated incident, it happens all the time. Earlier this year we had the late Richard Bropho shackled while he was dying. He had been homeless for years after the (State) Government had shut down the Swan Valley Nyungah Community, and made so many of the residents homeless. So many of them died on the streets, just like two of Richard’s sisters, who were found dead on the streets of Perth in consecutive Perth winters. Richard too was found unconscious while homeless. And without respite for his health he was sentenced on minor offences when in a reasonable physical condition to charge him. It was his family that fought for his release, for the right for him to die with family instead of being shackled in hospitals. His brother Herbert Bropho chained himself outside of Government House, and we rallied around Herbert, for his Richard’s release, which did happen – the magistrate ruled in his favour. Why did we have to go this far for a little piece of dignity and humanity? It took an unrelenting public stance on behalf of Richard for at least for him to be allowed the right to die with dignity.”

“Everyone needs to know what goes on. Everyone needs to know about what happened to Mr Bropho, and what happened to Mr Axtell, that is if we’re going to have any hope of reforming the whole prison system and saving lives,” said Ms Mackay.

Mr Darren Axtell sought my assistance with his 38-year-old brother who at the time was on remand in Hakea and Casaurina prisons.

On the Thursday that Mr Axtell died, his brother said to me, “We stayed by his bedside for 45 days till he passed away an hour ago.”

His death was classified as ‘natural’ however there was nothing ‘natural’ about elements of the manner of his death – and the vacuum of inhumanity that had him shackled 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.”

“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. Ms Axtell said, “When he was taken away by the police, his girlfriend warned them of his heart condition and she gave them his medication, and that it was a must it is was administered daily – it was what 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 officer advised us that they were really concerned and did say, ‘we though 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 Royal Perth Hospital, we made a number of calls to ensure that he would be sent to Casuarina – as it has an infirmary.” But everyone knew that a person waiting for a new heart should have remained in hospital and not in a prison infirmary.

“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 any more for him and slammed the glass window in his face.”

After repeated calls from family members Mr Axtell was transferred to the 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.”

His father, Brian Axtell said, “How much is a human life worth?”

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 pleading from his family, this time to the prison superintendent an ambulance was called in. In the ensuing several weeks his family would endure the anguish of his deterioration.

He was transferred to Perth’s Sir Charles Gardiner Hospital for the heart claiming – a last shot at life. During the next 48 hours he lost 15 kilograms and the procedure did not take place – his kidneys were the first to go.

“This is his story – please tell me, if he was not a prisoner, would he have been treated like this?” said father, Mr Brian Axtell.

“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.”

The policy of shackling, and the decision-making around it, needs to be reviewed. I have written of other occurrences of shackling without justification. I wrote about an Aboriginal lady who was shackled while giving birth – what was she going to do? Run?

Dr Steels said that we must move away from “crime and punishment mindsets” and “work with people, alongside them, restoratively, humanely, in order that we make society humane.”


More reading:

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?


-          Ombudsman investigation into the Department for Correctional Services in relation to the restraining and shackling of prisoners in hospitals.