Coronial inquest likely after Aboriginal man’s death in custody in Victorian jail

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The man died in the Ravenhall Correctional Centre on March 7. (ABC News: Jean Edwards)

An Aboriginal man who died in Victoria’s largest jail last month gained 140 kilograms over his three years in the prison system, a coronial court has been told.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised this article contains the name of a person who has died.

The nation will next week mark 30 years since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody made 339 recommendations to better protect Aboriginal people in Australian jails and police stations.

“Thirty years on, we are still here,” Coroner Leveasque Peterson said ahead of today’s hearing.

“As we approach the anniversary of the commission, I can only imagine the pain and trauma that many of our First Nations peoples are feeling at this time,” she said.

“My thoughts are with you.”

Ms Peterson indicated she would most likely hold an inquest into the death of 41-year-old Aboriginal prisoner Michael Suckling at the Ravenhall Correctional Centre on March 7.

“I’m leaning towards holding an inquest into this matter – clearly we’re in the early stages of this investigation, but that’s my thinking at the moment,” she said.

The Coroners Court of Victoria heard that inquests into Aboriginal deaths in custody were mandatory, but the coroner could decide not to hold one if the death was caused naturally and there were no other issues that needed to be explored.

Inquest would likely probe adequacy of medical care

Counsel assisting the coroner, Ingrid Giles, told the court that Mr Suckling had been sentenced to 10 years and three months’ jail with a non-parole period of seven years over a fatal crash at Castlemaine in 2018.

She said he was sentenced in August 2020 and transferred to the privately run Ravenhall Correctional Centre.

On March 7, his cellmate found him unresponsive in his bed.

“Michael was not breathing … and a code black was called,” Ms Giles said.

She said prison staff immediately administered CPR until an ambulance arrived, but Mr Suckling could not be revived.

Ms Giles told the court that an inquest could examine whether Mr Suckling received adequate care and treatment in the Victorian prison system.

She said Mr Suckling suffered a medical episode “that seemed to be a stroke” the day before his death.

“Michael refused further medical treatment but was given medication,” she said.

The court was also told that another issue that could be explored at the inquest was Mr Suckling’s weight gain since his incarceration in 2018.

“Michael was morbidly obese – he gained 140 kilograms in weight from the time he went into custody until the time of his death,” she said.

She said he died weighing 200 kilograms, was unable to wear standard prison shoes and required a walking stick at times to move around.

Marion Isabel, representing the Department of Justice and Community Safety, told the court her client would hand over all prison files relating to Mr Suckling to the coronial investigator.

The inquest has been adjourned until August.

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