Tragic puzzle of how Junior Togatuki killed himself in jail

A month after his sentence expired, Junior Togatuki was still languishing in solitary confinement.
DAVID WALKER/FAIRFAX NZ

A month after his sentence expired, Junior Togatuki was still languishing in solitary confinement.

Junior Togatuki should have been free. The 23-year-old had spent all of his adult life and much of his youth inside NSW prisons.

But more than a month after his sentence expired, he was still languishing in solitary confinement in Goulburn's Supermax prison.

His Australian visa had been revoked, and as his release date passed, his isolation cell transitioned seamlessly into de facto immigration detention. Battling schizophrenia and anxiety, his mental health deteriorated as he waited for a deportation date for New Zealand, which he'd left when he was four years old.

His family can't be sure he ever received one.

At 6am on September 12 – seven years after he entered the NSW prison system as a juvenile for armed robbery and assault – Junior was found dead in his cell. His left wrist had been slashed open with a prison-issued razor blade, and in his blood he had written messages of love to his family.

Almost two weeks after Junior's death, which has been ruled a suicide, his family is struggling to comprehend how their son and brother, who had finished serving time for a string of juvenile offences, died in the isolation unit of Australia's highest security prison.

"It's like an unsolved puzzle in my mind. I don't know where to start. He went inside without any sickness. Nothing," his mother Atagai Togatuki said.

"Even though he is gone, we need answers. I can't live every day of my life wondering what happened."

A source inside the jail said prison officials were aware of Togatuki's declining mental health, and that the 23-year-old had spent weeks in isolation in one of the jail's notorious "dry cells".

The dry cell is used as an observation or safety cell, but "its function is to break a person down until he submits". It is furnished only with a toilet, sink and concrete slab with a mattress on top. There is no window, natural light or natural ventilation. The lights are on 24-hours a day and three or four cameras monitor the cell at all times.

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In isolation, Togatuki's rage simmered. His criminal record expanded with a trail of violent outbursts. Numerous assaults against guards chipped away at his window for parole, which could have seen him released after four years and two months. After setting fire to his cell in February 2014 – an act which earned him an extra 14 months jail time – his release date was pushed back to August 11, 2015. In March this year, after more than 20 transfers through the prison system, he was placed in Supermax, alongside Australia's most notorious criminals, including convicted terrorist Mohamed Ali Elomar and gang rapist Bilal Skaf.

His family said they were never told why he was moved.

"He had done armed robbery. He was not a murderer. He had been in segregation for four years," said his sister Jean Togatuki, 26.

The Department of Corrective Services would not comment on the reason for his final transfer, but a spokesman said inmates were "placed in the HRMCC because of the risk they pose within the prison system" and included those with "a history of violent behaviour".

Togatuki's death is not the first time a mentally-ill inmate has taken their life after spending extended periods in solitary confinement.

In 2006, a coronial inquest found that Scott Simpson, who killed his cellmate during a paranoid schizophrenic episode during 2002, was held in isolation in Goulburn for up to 22 hours a day for two years. He killed himself shortly after he was transferred to Long Bay jail in 2004. A coronial inquest into Simpson's death was highly critical of the use of isolation cells, prompting the NSW Deputy State Coroner to recommend that inmates with mental illness be held in solitary confinement "only in exceptional circumstances and for a limited period".

Adding to the turbulence in the days before his death, Togatuki was informed by an immigration official his deportation papers had been processed, following a decision by Immigration Minister Peter Dutton to revoke his visa. His looming deportation extinguished his hope of returning to his family's home in Sydney's outer west, where he would be reunited with his parents and five siblings.

In an anguished letter to Mr Dutton written in March, Togatuki begged the minister to reconsider.

"All my family live here in Australia. This is our home. Not New Zealand."

His three younger siblings were born in Australia, he wrote, and were Australian citizens.

"I'll lose all I have. I'll lose my family. I'll lose hope in life if I go to New Zealand. I'll break down completely."

Togatuki also told the minister that he had been diagnosed with "high anxiety, post traumatic stress, hallucinations and schizophrenia after spending long periods of time in isolation".

Until they read the letter, Togatuki's family had no idea he was mentally unwell.

"Why didn't they inform us of anything? Was he sick? Was he mentally ill? Is there anyway we could we have helped him? We don't know anything," his sister Jean said.

The letter was to form part of the family's legal challenge to the deportation order but, desperate to get out of prison, Togatuki asked his parents to abandon it, Jean said.

"We had lawyers ready, but my brother made up his mind and said he didn't want to wait any more."

In the absence of answers, the family say they have been troubled by doubt that Togatuki took his own life. Weighing heavily on their minds is a call Togatuki made to his brother-in-law Mustafa Temul days before he died. Togatuki was frantic and scared, he said, and begged him to call the Ombudsman believing the prison guards were going to kill him.

"He said, 'please, you need to call that number because these guys are never going to let me call again'."

Before hanging up Togatuki told his relative: "Mark my words, I'm going to die here. Trust me they are going to do it."

They have also questioned why it took police until 2pm on Saturday afternoon to notify them of Togatuki's death, some eight hours after his body was discovered.

"I just hope he's free from any kind of pain. He didn't deserve this."

Where to get help:

The Mental Health Foundation's free Resource and Information Service (09 623 4812) will refer callers to some of the helplines below:

Lifeline - 0800 543 354

Depression Helpline (8 am to 12 midnight) - 0800 111 757

Healthline - 0800 611 116

Samaritans - 0800 726 666 (for callers from the Lower North Island, Christchurch and West Coast) or 0800 211 211 / (04) 473 9739 (for callers from all other regions)

Suicide Crisis Helpline (aimed at those in distress, or those who are concerned about the wellbeing of someone else) - 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)

Youthline - 0800 376 633, free text 234 or email talk@youthline.co.nz




 - Sydney Morning Herald

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