The former head of the Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement, Sandra Saunders, has expressed her outrage over another First Nations death in custody.

The Ngarrindjeri and Boandik arts activist from Wangary, 45 kilometres west of Port Lincoln, said she was beside herself after a 23-year-old Aboriginal man was found unresponsive in his cell last week.

“We had a royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody and the same thing still bloody happens,” she said.

“This community and the South Australian state should be ashamed of itself for allowing a young Aboriginal kid to die in custody.

I’m beside myself, and so is the community.”

Arts activist and former head of the Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement Sandra Saunders says First Nations people’s deaths in custody should not be happening.(Supplied: Sam Roberts)

SA Police confirmed the prisoner was found unresponsive in his cell at Port Lincoln Prison on June 4.

A Department of Correctional Services spokesperson said staff found the man about 10pm and rendered CPR before SA Ambulance Service members arrived about 10.20pm.

However, the man could not be revived. 

“I did a painting many years ago about deaths in custody and it’s still happening now, and I’m devastated about it,” Ms Saunders said.

“Condolences go out to all the Aboriginal community in Port Lincoln. And to this young fella’s family.”

‘Should have been a preventable death’

Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement principal legal officer Christopher Charles said he had represented more than 20 Aboriginal families at inquests into deaths in custody since 1980, including the family from the last case of an Indigenous death in custody in Port Lincoln in 2003.

Mr Charles said the 23-year-old man’s death seemed preventable and the correctional system might need an overhaul.

“Families take an awfully long time to get over it, if they ever do. And you have to ask yourself the question, whether this was a preventable death,” he said.

“From what little we know about this death in custody, it sounds to me as though it shouldn’t have happened.

 “It should have been a preventable death. And I think it is to those issues that the Department of Correctional Services needs to be answerable.”

Christopher Charles says vulnerable young Indigenous men should not be left alone in cells.(ABC News: Lincoln Rothall)

Inmate safety recommendations not fully implemented

Mr Charles said previous coronial inquests, which had recommended improvements to inmate safety, had not been fully implemented.

“I was involved in another inquest from a death in Port Lincoln Prison a good number of years ago, in which the issue was that the young man had been left alone. And it was in those circumstances that he died,” he said.

“I’m fearful that this may be the case in this one as well. When you have young, vulnerable Aboriginal people, they shouldn’t be on their own. They should be with other people to buddy them and look after them and support them.

“I’m concerned to know whether what happened in this case in relation to that issue as well because that was the circumstances of the last death in Port Lincoln Prison.”

A Department for Correction Services spokesperson said the government group was “committed” to upgrading jail cells to ensure they were all “safe cells”.

“The department recognises this as an important strategy to reduce the risk of suicide in our institutions,” it said.

“All newly constructed secure custody cells are constructed to a safe cell standard, with a series of works to upgrade existing cells underway.”

While a royal commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody was established in 1987 and provided 339 recommendations, a 2018 report commissioned by the federal government found SA had implemented less than 60 per cent of them.

Focus shifts to coroner’s report and police inquest into death

Mr Charles said he was interested to see the coroner’s report as well as the police inquest into the death, which would reveal whether there had been any safety improvements to prison cells at Port Lincoln since the last Aboriginal death in custody at the facility.

“That seems to me to be the really crucial question,” he said.

Minister for Correctional Services Dan Cregan extended his condolences to the man’s family and said “any death in custody is tragic”.

“The Department is undertaking an internal investigation into this tragedy, with SAPOL preparing a report for the coroner,” he said.