When Eddie Russell took his own life inside Long Bay prison in 1999, the coroner who investigated the death of the Aboriginal man concluded he was not a victim of a failed system because there was no system there to fail him.
The plot points of the story of Russell’s life and death inside the strictures of an ambivalent criminal justice system were so chaotic that when artist John A Douglas began researching the case he found it “disorientating”.
“At the beginning when I was looking through all of these files I was trying to piece things together, but there just wasn’t anything to piece together,” Douglas tells Guardian Australia.
“What I noticed was that over and over and over again, the reports kept saying the same thing. That he was suicidal, he had a lot of frustration, that he was impaired, that he needed to be treated but no one did anything [except] give him stronger and stronger [medication].”
Russell, who suffered from intellectual and physical disabilities, was in prison for six years from 1993.
Throughout his imprisonment, and despite recommendations from the court of criminal appeal and hundreds of transfers between institutions, he remained hundreds of kilometres away from Walgett, the town in western New South Wales where his family lived.
His suicide, while alone in a single cell, raised serious questions about how authorities had implemented the advice of the royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody.
That theme – of bureaucratic incoherence and its consequences – is at the centre of new work by the artist John A Douglas, No System to Fail, examining the way vulnerable people like Russell are treated in custody.
The piece is part of a new exhibition called justiceINjustice, a collaboration between artists and lawyers that focuses on high-profile cases of mistreatment and marginalisation in Australia’s justice system.
Showing at the Lock-Up in Newcastle – a heritage-listed former police station built in 1861 – the exhibition includes works by artists such as Blak Douglas, Corinne Brittain and Rob Cleworth, looking at incidents such as the death of baby Azaria Chamberlain, the unlawful detention of Cornelia Rau, and the police shooting of Roni Levi on Bondi beach.
The seven artists in the project worked with three lawyers involved with the cases to develop their pieces, and had access to case material including medical records and witness statements.
The resulting exhibition, curated by artist and criminologist Carolyn McKay, is compelling in its directness. What could have been a jarring visual experience – the collection, after all, has an eclectic feel – is brought together by a clear-eyed focus and, ultimately, an underlying humanity.
Douglas’ installation, for example, plays on the notion of disorientation; projections of the hundreds of transfers between and within prisons play alongside footage of the journey between the correctional facilities Russell was shunted between; Bathurst, Lithgow, Cessnock, Tamworth and Long Bay, where he eventually died.
Douglas drove the routes himself, testing how close he could get to the prison gates before being turned away.
In another room, which Douglas dubs “Eddie’s cell”, a screen displays text of Russell’s accounts of his assault by police in 1993 interspersed with the opaque language of the dozens of corrections department reports on his condition. A mop and bucket soaked in what Douglas says is regulation NSW prison disinfectant rests in the corner.
While most of the subject matter of the works in the exhibition relates to historical cases, the exception is Lezlie Tilley’s work on Kathleen Folbigg, who, in 2003, was convicted of three counts of murder and one count of manslaughter in relation to the deaths of her four babies.
Folbigg is currently serving a 25-year sentence, but her case is being considered by the NSW attorney general Mark Speakman after a request for a judicial review.
But all of the cases have contemporary relevance. Corrine Brittain’s exploration of the case of Cornelia Rau is a stark reminder of Australia’s continuing incarceration of asylum seekers. Rau, an Australian permanent resident, was unlawfully detained for a period of 10 months in 2004 and 2005 as part of the Australian government’s mandatory detention program.
Brittain’s work is subtly disturbing: a single rusted wire-mesh cot surrounded by long ropes of entangled, restrictive, red cotton twill.
“The subtext of this work is the relevance it has to our current cultural context in terms of refugees and asylum seekers,” Brittain says.
“I agreed to do the work if I could reference that because I think historical injustice should be given voice, but it was also making it relevant to now, which was really important to me.”
That notion – of dark episodes in Australia’s history informing our present – speaks to the exhibition’s broader purpose. Douglas, who said he was particularly aware of the sensitivities of a white artist telling an Indigenous story, wanted his work to reflect the contemporary relevance of Aboriginal deaths in custody.
“I really didn’t want it to be about white guilt,” he said. “I wanted this to be about, look, this is what has happened; fuck guilt, we need to be angry about this.
“This must not be forgotten. It’s what people have gone through and are still going through. White guilt is useless.”