What happened to Veronica Nelson? Nothing. An Aboriginal woman died in custody

Veronica Nelson

On January 13, Veronica Nelson, 37-year-old Yorta Yorta woman, was buried. On New Year’s Day, Veronica Nelson was charged with shoplifting and went to court that day. Veronica Nelson represented herself in court and was denied bail. She was sent to Dame Phyllis Frost Centre, a maximum-security facility, one of two women’s prisons in Victoria, Australia. At 8 am, January 2, Veronica Nelson was found dead in her cell. Her family, heartbroken, has questions. Her friends and community, grieving, have questions. Another Aboriginal woman dies in custody. Each time an Aboriginal woman has died in custody, we have asked, “What happened to her?”:  Ms. DhuCherdeena WynneRebecca MaherJoyce ClarkeMs. MMaureen MandijarraTanya Day. Remember Tanya Day, 55-year-old Yorta Yorta woman who, in December 2017, died, or was left to die … or was killed, in police custody? Her coronial inquest was barely finished when Veronica Nelson died. “What happened to  … ?”, we asked. It was the wrong question. We should have asked, “What happened to justice?”

Australia has built a special hell for Aboriginal women. “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in prison are the fastest growing prison population, and 21 times more likely to be incarcerated than non-indigenous peers.” That was reported in February 2018, and it wasn’t new then. These very issues arose in major reports published in  201020112012,  2013,  2014,  20152016,  2017. It’s 2020, new year, new decade, and Veronica Nelson is dead.

Her family reports that other women prisoners at Dame Phyllis Frost Centre report that Veronica Nelson was in great pain, screaming out for help. Veronica Nelson’s sister, Belinda Atkinson, said, “She’d gone up to medical asking for help, could she get something for her drug problem. She’d gone up there and asked for help and they’ve knocked her back, and then she was sitting in the cell crying. Crying, crying, crying, because she couldn’t get no help.” 

In 2017, the Victorian Ombudsman inspected Dame Phyllis Frost Centre and gave a mixed report. At the outset, the report noted, “Overall we found positive initiatives but an ageing and crowded facility, where prisoner numbers have grown 65 per cent in the last five years and remand prisoners have more than doubled over the same period … The inspection team identified a relatively high use of force and restraint at DPFC compared with other prisons in Victoria … There is little meaningful interaction between staff and women. Several women who had been held in Swan 2 described self-harming in the unit because they felt it was the only way to get staff to engage with them.”

Antoinette Braybrook, CEO of Djirrareflected, “Once again Aboriginal women’s lives are not valued. This is a death in custody of an Aboriginal woman that happened over a week ago — why are we only hearing about it now, through the media? Where is the outrage? When will Aboriginal women’s lives matter?”

The Victorian government has also responded to the death of Veronica Nelson: “As with all deaths in custody, the Coroner will investigate and formally determine the cause of death. As the matter is the subject of an ongoing coronial investigation, it would be inappropriate to comment.” The State is not heartbroken because the State has no heart.

Veronica Nelson was never meant to survive. Veronica Nelson is the most recent name of those who were never meant to survive. The family is meant to be heartbroken, drenched in and constituted by grief, and completely uninformed. As many have noted, it took eight days for the State to inform the family of Veronica Nelson’s death. What does that “time lag” suggest? There is little meaningful interaction.

What happened to Veronica Nelson? Nothing. An Aboriginal woman died in custody. What happened to Australia? Nothing. Another Aboriginal woman died in custody. What happened to justice? A contemporary postcolonial, anti-colonial politics that begins and ends with the State murder of Aboriginal women, which runs from lack of services and assistance, from cradle to grave, to mass incarceration to dumping into the mass graves of historical amnesia. What happened to Veronica Nelson? Nothing.

(Photo Credit: The Age)

What happened to Joyce Clarke? Nothing. An Aboriginal woman died in “police presence”

What is the value of a human life? It that human is an Aboriginal woman living in Australia, and especially in Western Australia, very little … and decreasing by the day. Consider the life story of Joyce Clarke, a 29-year-old Yamatji mother of a seven-year-old child. In Geraldton, Western Australia, on Tuesday, September 17, a few days out of prison and before that mental institution, Joyce Clarke started acting strangely. Not knowing what to do and fearing that Joyce Clarke might harm herself, the family called the police and asked them for assistance, asked the police to help them transport Joyce Clarke to hospital so that someone could take care of her. They called the police. The police came. The police saw Joyce Clarke outside the house, ostensibly holding a knife. The police told Joyce Clarke to drop the knife, she did not, the police fired and killed Joyce Clarke. That’s it. That’s the story, and that’s the value of a human life if that human is an Aboriginal woman living, and dying, in Australia, and especially Western Australia. Yet again.

People want to know why the police immediately used lethal force. Now the police express “sympathy and condolences” as they urge calm, ban takeaway alcohol sales, and made clear that Joyce Clarke’s death would be “classed as a death in police presence, not in police custody”. Meanwhile a family friend, Marianne Mallard, create a GoFundMe page to help the family pay for Joyce Clarke’s funeral.  If interested, you can donate here. Now the various stories about Joyce Clarke’s difficult and her loving life emerge. Likewise, now we hear, yet again, about how the police officer who shot and killed Joyce Clarke is devastated, on leave and receiving support and counseling from the police department. Yet again, we hear of the abysmal lack of any mental health support for Aboriginal and Indigenous people.

In November 2012, Maureen Mandijarra, a 44-year-old Aboriginal woman, died in police custody in Western Australia. In August 2014, a 22-year-old Aboriginal woman, called Ms. Dhu, died in custody in Western Australia. Ms. Dhu was Yamatji. Ms. Dhu’s family are from and continue to live in Geraldton. They live under the menacing sky of Yet Again. To this day, they await something like justice. In April 2019, Cherdeena Wynne died in police custody in Western Australia. Cherdeena Wynne was Noongar and Yamatji. Yet Again.

In Western Australia, Debbie Kilroy co-founded Sisters Inside to stop the abuse and incarceration of Aboriginal women, specifically, and Aboriginal people and communities, generally. Sisters Inside works to turn Yet Again into Never Again, but that requires a transformation of state. Meanwhile, this past weekend, Noongar woman Keennan Dickie was attacked, robbed, beaten, injured. She called the police for help. The police came, noted her injuries, and told her that, because she had outstanding fines, she’d have to go to the police station, once she healed, to report the assault and robbery. Keennan Dickie spent Saturday night in hospital. Still in pain, Keennan Dickie went to the police station the next day. They arrested her for unpaid fines and shipped her to Melaleuca Women’s Prison. As Debbie Kilroy noted, “We are seeing over and over again the arrest of women living in poverty who cannot pay their fines. It is not that they don’t want to pay their fines. We are seeing the criminalisation of poverty and the default response to that is prison.” Yet Again 

What is the value of an Aboriginal woman’s life, in Australia, in Western Australia, anywhere? Yet Again. Never Again. Yet Again. Never Again? Never Again.

(Photo Credit 1: Green Left Weekly / Deborah Green) (Photo Credit 2: West Australian / Geraldton Guardian / Francesca Mann)

What happened to Tanya Day? Nothing. Just another Aboriginal woman died in police custody

Tanya Day and her granddaughter

In Australia, for Aboriginal women and their families, the wheels of justice do not turn at all, but they do try to grind the people into dust. On December 22, 2017, Tanya Day, a 55-year-old Yorta Yorta grandmother, “died of traumatic brain injuries” in police custody, in the Castlemaine Police Station, in Victoria, Australia. Next month, the coroner is expected to release her report. Tanya Day’s family and supporters have asked the coroner to consider systemic racism. as a cause of death. If the coroner agrees, a new standard may have been set. Whatever the coroner decides, Tanya Day – like Cherdeena WynneMs Dhu, and scores of other Aboriginal women– did not “die” and was not “discovered”. Tanya Day was killed in police custody. Harrison Day, Tanya Day’s uncle, died in police custody, also in Victoria. Harrison Day died, or was killed, June 23, 1982, 37 years to the day. From 1987 to 1991, the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody met to discuss Harrison Day’s death and those of 99 other Aboriginal women and men. They issued a raft of recommendations, of which more than 30% have never been implemented. After Ms. Dhu’s death in custody, in 2014, promises were made but Western Australia has not introduced a single law emerging from the circumstances of Ms. Dhu’s death. From Harrison Day, in 1982, to Tanya Day, in 2017, to today, the line of murders of Aboriginal women and men in custody is direct and genocidal.

By all accounts, Tanya Day was a vivacious, lively, politically engaged woman. She was an activist who campaigned to stop the deaths of Aboriginal women and men in prison. At the time of her death, she was actively helping the family of Tane Chatfield, a young Indigenous man who died in police custody. She was also on what her family calls a health craze, involving regular exercise and healthy diet. On December 5, 2017, Tanya Day boarded a train to Melbourne. According to her family, she had not been drinking regularly, but on that day, she had. She fell asleep on the train. When the conductor awakened her for her ticket, she was confused. There is no report that she was aggressive. The conductor called the police. The police took her off the train and took Tanya Day to the Castlemaine Police Station. The charge was public drunkenness. The police called the family to come fetch her. By the time they arrived, Tanya Day was hospitalized. She died seventeen days later. 

Tanya Day fell in her cell in the police station five times, which caused traumatic brain injuryShe lay, alone, on the floor for hours. Tanya Day should never have been in that police station. The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody strongly recommended doing away with public drunkenness laws. Subsequent scholarship and experience have supported that recommendation, pretty much uniformly. The laws that criminalize public drunkenness remain on the books. As one human rights advocate noted, “Most Victorians have committed the offence of public drunkenness.” If Tanya Day had been White, she would have been allowed to stay on the train and sleep it off. Even if not, someone who needs assistance to stand belongs in an emergency room, not a police station cell. Australia has known all of this for decades, formally, and has done less than nothing. That kind of inaction is a key ingredient to genocide as to femicide. What happened to Tanya Day? Australia. 

(Photo Credit: ABC News Australia)

What happened to Cherdeena Wynne? Nothing. An Aboriginal woman died in police custody

Cherdeena Wynne

In Western Australia, yet another Aboriginal woman died in police custody. Cherdeena Wynne was 26 years old, mother of three children, living with mental illness. According to Shirley Wynne, Cherdeena Wynne’s mother, at 3:30 on April 4, eight police officers entered Shirley Wynne’s home and, in the dark, wrestled Cherdeena Wynne to the floor, where they handcuffed her. According to Shirley Wynn, the officers kept calling Cherdeena Wynne by another name. Finally, after 20 minutes, the officers left the house and Cherdeena Wynne understandably terribly upset. Cherdeena Wynne ran from the house. Police encountered her blocks away from her mother’s house. Police handcuffed Cherdeena Wynne, for her “protection.” Cherdeena Wynne passed out. Officers uncuffed her, administered CPR. She revived and was taken to hospital, where she was placed in an induced coma and died, on Tuesday, April 9. Police are not investigating her death because, basically, nothing happened. It gets worse.

Cherdeena Wynne was the daughter of Shirley Wynne and Warren Cooper. Cherdeena Wynne was Noongar and Yamatji. In 1999, Warren Cooper was arrested. Warren Cooper died in police custody. Both Cherdeena Wynne and her father Warren Cooper were 26 years old when they died in police custody. Jennifer Clayton, Cherdeena Wynne’s grandmother and Warren Cooper’s mother, said, “It’s time for this to stop. I have lost my son and now I have lost a granddaughter.” Carol Roe, Jennifer Clayton’s cousin, agreed: “If kids die from natural causes you can go on, but the way our kids die we can’t go on. We are lost in the system and they don’t care two stuffs.” Carol Roe is Ms. Dhu’s grandmother, the same 22-year-old Ms. Dhu who died in custody in 2014, also in Western Australia. Ms. Dhu was arrested for unpaid parking fines. Ms. Dhu and Cherdeena Wynne were executed for the crime of being-Aborigina-women.

Monday, April 8, marked the 28thanniversary of the publication of the findings of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. That Commission studied 99 Aboriginal deaths in custody between 1980 and 1989. Of 99 deaths, 33 occurred in Western Australia, one of six states. The Commission issued 399 recommendations. At this point, a third of the commission’s recommendations lay untouched and without implementation. In 2016, at a commemoration of the 25thanniversary of the Commission, Carol Roe said, “They do the talk, but they need to do the walk and take action and help us and support us. Set the people free for petty crimes, instead of locking them up. Eighteen years ago my nephew died in custody. Two years ago it was my granddaughter. When is it going to stop, our heart still bleeds … I think Australia and the world need to see how my granddaughter was treated. Dragged around like a kangaroo. They need to look at it, let the world see. Shame, shame on Australia.”

We have described the deaths of the following Aboriginal men and women in Western Australia before: Mr. Ward, 2008Maureen Mandijarra, 2012;  Ms. Dhu, 2014. Two years ago, we described, after three years, there was still no justice for Ms. Dhu, her family, or Aboriginal women generally. Repeatedly we have seen Western Australia as the epicenter for the rising incarceration of Aboriginal women and the expanding and intensifying abuse of Aboriginal women in the various forms of detention in Western Australia. None of this is new.

Currently, there is no accountability and no justice for the deaths of Aboriginal and Indigenous women and men in Australia’s prison. Cherdeena Wynne was handcuffed in police custody when she fell unconscious. The police decided not to investigate. Nothing happened, less than nothing. It’s time for this to stop. Stop sending Aboriginal women and men to jail for drunken behavior, sleeping rough, unpaid fines, mental illness, being Aboriginal. It’s time, it’s way past time, for this to stop. 

Ms, Dhu

(Photo Credit 1: The Guardian) (Photo Credit 2: ABC)