“I had to roll him to from his back to his side because he was too black and too bruised. He’d already lost feeling in his toes and there was talk of removing some limbs.” – Darren Axtell
The Death of Anthony Axtell was written after I was given the opportunity by newly launched Brisbane street press, Text and Image, to tell the story of how Anthony Nigel Axtell had died while in the custody of the Western Australia prison system.
Darren Axtell, I can’t thank you enough for your assistance and your support through the process; it’s been a privilege and an honour to play my part in making Tony’s story heard.
On the morning of his death, Tony Axtell was bruised black from his knees to his shoulders. He was restricted to the confines of a hospital bed and hadn’t slept or eaten in 48 hours, losing 16kilos in that time.
“He was just a skeleton rolling around,” Tony’s brother Darren said as he remembered that final moment on the 13th of September 2012.
“Every bit of oxygen passed out of his body, as I looked down to hear the last breath leave, while he made the change and his lips went blue.”
The Brisbane-born, Anthony Nigel Axtell, nicknamed Tony, died while in the custody of the West Australian prison system after an altercation over a restraining order had led to Tony’s arrest.
The 38-year-old bricklayer had a history of drug use and run-ins with the law. Tony had cleaned up his act by 1996, having moved to Perth to start a new life as a father and a business owner.
However, Perth was not exempt from temptation, and Tony fell back into past curses, which attracted the attention of the local police.
“He asked if I would come and visit him if he got sorted,” Darren said. “He was doing well, having a good time. Unfortunately, he had the taste of having something in your system and wanting it back.”
During that period Tony was battling with a long-standing Cardiomyography; a condition causing rigidity of the heart muscles, resulting in a backflow of blood to the body, eventually leading to heart failure.
Tony was reliant on a stream of vital medication to keep him alive, while he waited in line for a heart transplant.
To be eligible for the procedure, Tony was required to maintain a clean record for a minimum of 10 years. Tony was unfortunately taken into custody just over one and a half years shy of the required mark.
In July 2012 Tony had crashed his car after falling asleep at the wheel. He had driven over an embankment and smashed up his knee and kidneys.
After a stay in intensive care his ex-partner, who had a domestic violence order issued against him, picked him up from the hospital and took him home, into her care.
“Being the small town that Perth is,” Darren said, “The cops knew that she took him.”
Breaking a DVO is a jail-able offence for someone who has already done time. “He was sleeping on the couch when the cops pretty much kicked the door in and took him straight to the Hakea Prison.”
It was at this point that bureaucratic quagmire began the process of hastening Tony’s death.
Before being taken away, Tony’s ex-partner had made it clear that without his medication, and given the withered status of his heart condition, he would die.
However, Tony was issued his medication for only the first day, and then denied it the next day, with the prison staff substituting the medication with Panadol, irrespective of his ex partner’s pleas just the day before.
By the second day of using the replacement medication, Tony was in an ambulance, on his way to Perth hospital. “I flew over that weekend to see him and when I got there he couldn’t get out of his cell, he couldn’t move.”
After a short hospital stint, Tony was then sent to Casuarina Prison, a maximum-security facility, where he was given his medication, but the staff at Casuarina proved incapable of caring for Tony. He had developed pneumonia after his heart valves had bled heavily, filling his lungs with blood.
After being rushed back to hospital, Tony was restrained. His legs were shackled to the bed while two guards watched him 24hours a day.
Darren’s mother, Elaine, petitioned to get the shackles removed, but three days after being admitted, Tony was sent back to Casuarina Prison on new medical drugs that were designed to stop his heart from bleeding.
“He had been placed in the nurse section of the infirmary when they should have known about his symptoms, that he needed more, but they had said no.”
Darren’s weight dropped to below 70kilograms. His legs were cut to pieces from the shackles and he slept chained to the bed.
Suffering dangerous levels of dehydration Tony was sent back to the hospital where the panic-stricken staff thought it best to pump six litres of electrolytes into Tony’s body.
The fluid backed up within his bloodstream causing his legs to balloon out. The added mass only put more pressure on his heart, Darren said.
Tony’s past tainted their view of him. “They wouldn’t have understood what it’s like for someone who is, for the lack of better term, a drug dependent, intravenous user, or what made him pursue that life,” Darren said.
With Tony’s options running out Darren and Elaine were advised that his debilitated breathing suggested he would die within hours.
Over the next ten days, Tony fought for what Darren figured to be, “Every two hours. On the third day, the doctors came in and they could not believe that he was still alive.”
“I had to roll him to from his back to his side because he was too black and too bruised. He’d already lost feeling in his toes and there was talk of removing some limbs.”
On the morning of the 13th of September, on day 45 day of his custodial stay, Tony passed out while Darren was helping massage out a kink in his neck. “I was holding him up when he went semi-conscious and I said to him quietly, ‘You fought this so long, and now it seems like you’re just fighting because we’re here.’ Then I said, ‘Just let go if you have to.'” Ten minutes later, that’s when it happened.
Following his death, Tony’s case was featured by various researchers who all held the common belief that the refusal of the Western Australia gaol system to, “…accept that they had a duty of care to Anthony,” had tragically led to his death.
Gerry Georgatas, a PhD researcher described Anthony during his time of detainment as a, “…frail man, who could barely breathe, and had nowhere to run other than into death itself.”
Gerry said shackling is used as a tool for demeaning inmates when they go to court, merely to dehumanise and shame them before their family and friends. “The system must appear all-powerful and in control and that is abused when it comes to inmates, every day in every state and territory.”
The main crux of the research held the message that, “A morally corrupt system is being done in your name and with your money,” referring to the tax payers role in the matter. “Anthony Axtell’s death indicts everyone.”
“Somebody has to take much of the responsibility for the failure of the penal estate. We are turning offenders into victims of State crime.” Going on to pronounce that, “We have to move away from ‘crime and punishment’ and work with people, alongside them, restoratively, humanely; in order that we make society humane.”
© Jonathan Boonzaaier 2016