Harrowing video footage shows death in custody of Aboriginal man

Lorena Allam

Shocking video footage of the death in custody of an Indigenous Australian man has been aired in court for the first time, depicting five officers restraining a man who said 12 times that he could not breathe.

David Dungay Jr died in 2016 while he was being held down by officers in a Sydney jail.

An insulin-dependent diabetic, 26-year-old Dungay had been eating biscuits. Prison officers told him to stop and, after giving him a minute to comply, stormed his cell, restrained him face down and handcuffed him.

Throughout the incident, which is shown in harrowing detail in the footage, Dungay shouts that he cannot breathe and begs to be let go.

After he yells: “I can’t breathe” a guard responds: “If you’re talking, you can breathe.”

Members of Dungay’s family left the room when the footage was shown at the inquest into his death, which began on Monday in Sydney.

The Dungay family has waited almost three years for the case to be heard.

It’s been 26 years since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody handed down 339 recommendations it said needed to be implemented to reduce the disproportionate numbers of Aboriginal people being incarcerated and dying in custody.

Dungay is one of more than 340 Aboriginal people who have died in custody since the report was released. The number of Aboriginal people being incarcerated has steadily increased over the last decade. Indigenous adults are now 13 times more likely to be incarcerated than non-Indigenous Australians, and juveniles are 24 times more likely to be incarcerated. The fastest-growing prison population is Indigenous women.

Late last month, the Northern Territory government was forced to admit that every single child in detention is Aboriginal.

On Monday, the New South Wales coroner released footage of events leading up to the point where Dungay became unresponsive, but his family has seen the whole recording.

“That’s going to be playing in my mind forever. I think about that at least once a day,” Dungay’s nephew, Paul Silva told Guardian Australia’s podcast, Breathless.

“My uncle’s saying ... I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe. They’re saying you’re talking so you can breathe.”

“They smashed his face with a shield, and they’ve covered his mouth and you could hear, like when you’re in the water … you could hear him say ‘I can’t breathe’ and his voice is gurgling like it’s water, but it’s blood.”

Paul and Dungay’s mother, Leetona, both described staff holding Dungay down on his bed, his throat pressed against the hard edge of the bed, and described his sedation.

“Shortly after giving it to him they say: ‘alright Dungay we’re gonna leave you now, you’re gonna be right in here by yourself for the night; we’re going to watch you’,” Paul said.

“He doesn’t respond, and you hear one guard say: oh fuck he’s gone, oh fuck he’s gone.”

“To watch my son pass away in front of my eyes is devastating,” said Leetona Dungay, David’s mother.

The inquest also heard a suggestion that attempts by health staff to resuscitate Dungay were “lost by the inadequate and interrupted care he received”, which was effectively without value and “incompatible with survival”.

The inquest is set down for two weeks.