The Victorian Coroners Court completed five weeks of public hearings on May 27 in a coronial inquest into the death of Gunditjmara, Dja Dja Wurrung, Wiradjuri and Yorta Yorta woman Veronica Nelson.
Veronica died in the Dame Phyllis Frost Centre (DPFC), a women’s prison, on January 2, 2020. She weighed 33 kilograms and had undiagnosed Wilkie Syndrome, which causes constriction of the arteries. She also suffered from heroin withdrawal.
Veronica was imprisoned on December 31, 2019, after being arrested for alleged shoplifting, as well as bail offences. Her application for bail was rejected after a police officer mistakenly ticked a box on a form saying that she was a danger to others, even though she had no history of violence.
In prison she was seen by a nurse, Stephanie Hills, who suggested that an ambulance be called. According to her testimony, the prison doctor Sean Runacres refused to do so, saying: “I’m the doctor, I'll make the decisions”. Runacres denies this.
Veronica was placed in a locked cell overnight at DPFC, from which she repeatedly screamed and pressed a buzzer to seek help, but her pleas were ignored.
Runacres and Hills were employed by Correct Care Australasia (CCA), a private company that has a contract to provide health care to prisoners in Victoria, at the cost of about $70 million a year. CCA is owned by Correct Care Solutions/Wellpath, a United States-based transnational corporation, which has been linked to prison deaths in the US.
Hills said she tried to raise her concerns within the company, without success. At the inquest CCA Deputy CEO Christine Fuller denied there was an attempted cover-up.
Karen Fletcher, Executive Officer of Flat Out, which supports women leaving prison, told Green Left Nelson should never have been in prison in the first place.
“Prisons are extremely dangerous places, especially for Aboriginal women,” Fletcher said. “Veronica was not a danger to anyone. She was in very poor health but the prison health service was so inadequate she got no help, despite screaming for hours from a locked cell.
“Aboriginal women are the fastest growing population in Victorian prisons because of changes to bail laws that make prison the first, rather than last, resort. Victorian bail laws need to change to restore the presumption in favour of bail, and prison health services need to be delivered by public and Aboriginal Community Controlled health agencies, not by a US multinational.”