Relatives demand answers after Yorta Yorta woman dies in custody

Invasion Day protest, Naarm (Melbourne). Photo: Charandev Singh

Disgracefully, Victorian authorities took more than a week to confirm the death in custody of another Yorta Yorta woman on January 2. Veronica Nelson was being held at a maximum-security prison in Melbourne for a minor crime when she died.

The grieving family was told they may have to wait up to three months to learn what caused Nelson’s death, even though inmates reported hearing her screaming for help. Belinda Atkinson told The Age that her sister was taken into custody last December 30 and, the next day, was refused bail after facing court without legal representation.

Nelson’s family and prison inmates indicate that Nelson, who was withdrawing from methadone at the time, was allegedly refused medical care. Atkinson told NITV News: “I’ve heard that cellmates in other parts of the jail heard her go down to medical and ask for help, but the guards grabbed her and took her back. I want the whole world to know what has happened.”

Lawyers reported that their clients at the Dame Phyllis Frost centre, a maximum security prison, were traumatised and feared for their own lives after hearing Nelson’s screams for help.

Cousin Shaurntae Lyons asked: “When Aunty Donna went in to ID the body, there were bruises all over her eyes and ears, so what’s happened in there? Why wasn’t she checked every hour like she was supposed to be?”

“Why didn’t they give her what she wanted in medical? “Why was she locked up for two days in those cells … she was refused bail just for shoplifting. Why did they put her in maximum security?” Atkinson asked.

This new tragic death in custody comes a few weeks after the final hearing of the coronial inquest into the death in custody in 2017 of Yorta Yorta woman Tanya Day. Day died from catastrophic brain injuries in a police cell in Castlemaine in Victoria.

Activists say it raises serious questions about the state’s spending on prisons, discriminative policing and the onerous bail conditions placed on Indigenous women which helps maintain the sexist and racist status quo. Nelson had been refused bail on New Year’s eve.

It should not be deemed normal that a staggering 34% of the female prison population are Indigenous Australians when they only make up just 2.2% of the population, according to the UN Working Group on Discrimination Against Women.

Studies show that most of these women are mothers and survivors of family and other violence. And, as these mothers are being taken away from their children for mostly victimless crimes, their children are being locked up for months at a time in youth justice centres, some for the “crime” of stealing hamburger buns.

This is a human right’s disaster: it is possible that we will lose another generation of Indigenous Australians to incarceration, traumatising younger people.

As governments have systematically failed to follow their own recommendations, including those outlined in the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, the imprisonment rates of Indigenous women have increased by nearly 150%.

Three decades on, Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander women are now one of the most incarcerated women in the world.

As these preventable deaths in custody continue to rise, so too are the billions of dollars being spent by the Victorian Labor government.

Instead of addressing the reasons for over-representation of Aboriginal people in the criminal justice system, Premier Daniel Andrews has committed $1.8 billion to build another prison. His government is also hell-bent on delivering the biggest police recruitment drive in history.

State-sanctioned violence and racist abuse means that First Nation’s people are being locked up an alarming rate of 2.5%, higher than that of African Americans.

Nelson was swept up by this unjust system. Atkinson said her sister was a talented poet and loved her family. “Justice needs to be served. I want to know how she passed away in jail.”

Nelson died because of the system’s deep injustices. Unless governments abandon their racist “tough on crime” approach and the criminal justice system is urgently reformed more lives will be lost.

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