23 Nov 2014

Prison death inquest gets underway

10:11 pm on 23 November 2014

A major coroner's inquest begins this morning into the death of an Otago prisoner from a suspected drug overdose.

Jai Davis, 30, died in February 2011 at the Otago Corrections Facility near Milton.

Jai Davis.

Jai Davis died in prison in February 2011. Photo: Supplied

Last year, following a complaint to the Independent Police Conduct Authority, police held a large investigation into allegations prison nurses and guards had failed in their duty of care, but decided there was not enough evidence to lay charges.

The coroner is expected to call 58 witnesses at the inquest in Dunedin, which is scheduled to run for up to two weeks.

Evidence is being called from 26 prison guards and prison nurses on duty at the time Mr Davis died. Some of the staff are still working for Corrections, but a number have left the prison service since the incident.

Also involved in the inquest are dozens of police, prison managers, medical staff and Department of Corrections officials. One former Otago prison nurse is being flown back from Australia to give evidence.

Some other former staff have refused to attend, but have sent statements.

The process is expected to be complicated by the fact many of the staff will be attending with lawyers or union representatives.

At least five serving prison officers have already filed for name suppression through their lawyers, although a number of news organisations, including Radio New Zealand, are opposing this.

Manslaughter, duty of care investigated

Mr Davis was 30 years old, lived in Dunedin and was the father of six children.

He had previously been convicted of assault and theft, but broke probation and went into the prison on remand while waiting to appear in court.

Outside the Otago Corrections Facility.

The Otago Corrections Facility. Photo: Department of Corrections

He had decided to take drugs into prison with him, concealed inside his body.

It is alleged that the prison authorities knew this and put him in a cell and made him sweat it out, but something went wrong and he died, apparently from the drugs he had ingested.

Mr Davis's death was at first recorded as natural causes, but after complaints from his family and supporters there have several investigations.

The central question is whether he received the correct care, whether the prison guards checked on him properly and referred him for medical help.

There are also questions about how much the prison nurses and prison management knew of his condition and if they followed that up.

Police interviewed about 50 people, most of whom are expected to appear at the inquest, but decided there was not enough evidence to press charges for neglecting care, or for the most serious charge, manslaughter.

Deaths in prison happen quite often, but they rarely get this kind of scrutiny.

A mother's worst nightmare

Jai Davis' mother, Victoria Davis, has lodged complaints and sought documents and has been pushing for answers for more than three years since his death.

Ms Davis said she was nervous but was putting a lot of faith in the coroner to get to the bottom of how her son died.

"It has really been a mother's worst nightmare. Having your son die, and then waiting so long for everything to come out, it's been hideous," she said.

"I just don't want another family to go through what's happened. As long as the truth comes out, then we [will] know what to do next."

Ms Davis is on the list to be called as the last of the 58 witnesses and said she would have a lot to say to the coroner.

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