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Inquest told women's prisons are 'awash' in illicit drugs

Overdose: Tracy Brannigan.

Overdose: Tracy Brannigan. Photo: Supplied

Women's prisons in NSW are awash with illicit drugs that are fuelling ''drug parties'' and fatal overdoses, an inquest has revealed.

The death in custody of mother-of-three Tracy Brannigan from a heroin overdose should serve as a watershed moment that exposes the ''callous indifference'' of correctional services and staggering drug abuse within prisons, prisoner advocate Brett Collins said.

It's not going to help my daughter but her legacy will be to help other prisoners who need it. 

Officers at Dillwynia Correctional Centre had placed Brannigan, 41, on ''sanctions'' for her continual drug use, yet were unable to stop her having a ''drug party'' in a high-needs cell that she shared with another known drug user, the inquest heard on Tuesday.

Brannigan's partner Carlos D'Amico and mother Sandra Kelly.

Brannigan's partner Carlos D'Amico and mother Sandra Kelly. Photo: Edwina Pickles

Detective Inspector Gary Jones said he believed Brannigan and her cellmate took prescription drugs and heroin one night in February last year, accidentally killing Brannigan just three months shy of her possible release.

Brannigan, a career criminal and long-term drug addict, had previously overdosed three times in prison, yet freely obtained drugs, which are often thrown over the back fence of the semi-rural prison near Windsor, the inquest heard.

Counsel assisting the coroner, Paul Bush, said the inquest will question whether Corrective Services NSW and Justice Health breached their duty of care by allowing Brannigan to continually abuse drugs or by not giving her adequate supervision and treatment when she was high.

Her death has led to calls for an overhaul of the prison system to stem the flow of drugs.

Public Interest Advocacy Centre solicitor Jane Leibowitz, who is representing Brannigan's family, has called for better drug detection, better staff training and a stronger focus on therapeutic programs for drug addicts rather than custodial sentences.

One correctional officer, Robert Eastwood, told the inquest of a ''drugs party'' in about 2010 in which illicit drugs flooded the prison and a whole ''unit'' had to be treated for intoxication.

The security manager of Dillwynia, Leanne O'Toole, said "drugs were more prevalent" among female prisoners than male prisoners and she estimated 75 per cent of inmates "have some sort of substance abuse [or] addiction".*

''There is no time that I would ever guarantee that there are no drugs in a correctional facility,'' she said. ''I don't believe you will ever completely stop it.''

Regular searches and crackdowns are conducted but there is no X-ray machine or high perimeter fences at Dillwynia and prisoner rights had to be balanced with invasive searches, she said.

Outside the court, Brannigan's mother, Sandra Kelly, and her daughter's partner, Carlos D'Amico, said they were devastated by her death and questioned how well-resourced rehabilitation programs were if 75 per cent of inmates are using drugs. ''It's not going to help my daughter but her legacy will be to help other prisoners who need it,'' Ms Kelly said.

Mr Collins said Brannigan had expressed interest in working on prisoner advocacy and was a delegate on an inmate development committee. He said she wanted to complete a business degree but was not given permission and had been refused access to education classes and computers; a claim denied by the prison. ''Tracy will never be able to achieve all her ambitions,'' Mr Collins said.

* Clarification: An earlier version quoted Leanne O'Toole saying drugs were more readily available in female facilities and that an estimated 75 per cent of inmates were abusing drugs.

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