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 Teresa Gratton? Just another woman lost in Canada’s immigrant detention

 

On October 23, 50-year-old Teresa Michelle Gratton wrote a letter to her husband Herb Gratton, her partner of 32 years, “PLEASE GET ME OUT OF HERE I DON’T BELONG HERE!! HELP ME! HELP ME! PLEASE!!!!!! … I don’t see how they can continue to keep me locked up like a criminal. I have no charges. I had already paid my time for my crime. I’ll leave Canada if that’s what it comes to, but let me out until that’s what’s desided (sic) if it comes to that.” A week later, on October 30, Teresa Gratton – beloved mother, grandmother, wife, life partner, permanent resident of Canada – was “found in medical distress”. Herb Gratton received a phone call, “Your wife died.” That was all that was said. To this day, the family does not know, and demands to know, what happened to their loved one. What happened to Teresa Gratton? The State murdered her. Canada murdered her. The global system of `immigrant detention’ her. To the extent that the system of immigrant detention continues, we all had a hand in murdering Teresa Gratton.

Everything about Teresa Gratton’s story is familiar, the entire spectacular of State indignity, brutality, and silence, with the family’s anguish as backdrop and soundtrack.

Herb Gratton, 58 years old, was born in Canada. When he was 13, he and his mother moved to Nashville, Tennessee. In 1985, he met Teresa. He says for him it was love at first sight. They dated, the moved in together, they started a family. They have three sons, Matthew, now 30 years old; Stan, 27; and Jacob, 24. Matthew and Stan are married with children. After 18 years together, Herb and Teresa were formally married, in 2003. Not long after, they moved to Canada. Herb, Matthew, Stan, Jacob, and all their children, are Canadian citizens. Teresa Gratton had been a legal permanent resident in Canada since 2011.

In 2004, Herb Gratton suffered a back injury. The couple’s financial situation deteriorated. Teresa Gratton worked off and on as a house cleaner. Teresa Gratton lived with fibromyalgia and osteoarthritis, which resulted in chronic pain, and anxiety and depression. She relied on hydromorphone, an opioid, which she obtained legally.

Teresa Gratton had a series of minor run ins with the criminal justice system. At the advice of her attorney, she pled out. That resulted in Teresa Gratton suddenly ending up in the immigrant detention system. Despite all evidence to the contrary, she was deemed a flight risk, and so was moved from was transferred from the Elgin-Middlesex Detention Centre in London, where her family lives, to the maximum security wing of Vanier Centre for Women, nearly 100 miles away. Herb Gratton doesn’t have a car. No one informed Herbert Gratton of the move. He had no idea where his wife was until she called him from Vanier.

Teresa Gratton was transferred on October 1 or 2. On October 30, she was dead. In the interim, she wrote daily letters to her husband, describing the torturous conditions in maximum security. A former resident recalls Vanier: “You go in wanting to kill yourself and the conditions just make you want to kill yourself more.” A former immigrant detainee of Vanier describes it as “terrible. There is nothing there…. Prisoners can only go outside twice a week for fresh air, for like 5 minutes… that’s it. We didn’t see sun, we didn’t see sky.”

Why was Teresa Gratton sent to Vanier Centre for Women? To die. Since 2000, at least 17 people have died in Canada’s immigrant detention system. In 2013, Lucia Vega Jimenez was found hanging from a shower stall in the `immigration holding center’ at the Vancouver airport. Reporters, friends, advocates asked many questions. Silence. Lucia Vega Jimenez’ case was a cause celebre, and yet here we are, four years later, and Teresa Gratton is dead, and her family, to this day, awaits information, something more than, “Your wife is dead.” Something more than silence. Something to answer their loved one, Teresa Gratton, crying, screaming in agony, “PLEASE GET ME OUT OF HERE I DON’T BELONG HERE!! HELP ME! HELP ME! PLEASE!!!!!!” PLEASE!!!!!!

 

(Photo Credit: Anne-Marie Jackson / Toronto Star) (Video Credit: YouTube / Toronto Star)

 

Three years on, still no justice for Ms. Dhu, her family, or Aboriginal women generally

Ms. Dhu, who died in police custody, August 2014

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 August 4, 2014, a 22-year-old Aboriginal woman, called Ms. Dhu, died in custody in Western Australia. She was being held for unpaid parking fines. Ms. Dhu screamed of intense pains and begged for help. She was sent to hospital twice and returned, untreated, to the jail. On her third trip to the hospital, she died within 20 minutes. Reports suggest she never saw a doctor. Her grandmother says she “had broken ribs, bleeding on the lungs and was in excruciating pain.” That wasn’t enough. In her death, Ms. Dhu joined a long line, actually a mob, of Aboriginal women who have died in custody in Australia. Ms. Dhu’s family joined a longer line of Aboriginal family members seeking justice. Three years later, Ms. Dhu’s family still struggles for peace and something like justice concerning the circumstances of their loved one’s death. To make matters worse, the statute of limitations is running out soon, and so Ms. Dhu’s mother, Della Roe, and her brother, Shaun Harris are preparing to sue the State, not because they want to but because the State has pushed them to this moment. As Della Roe explains, “I want justice and someone pay for what they did to my baby. They need to be accountable for it.”

The State did its own accounting, and that’s why, and how, Ms. Dhu died. Like the United States, Canada, and others, Australia has invested heavily in the devaluation of Aboriginal women’s bodies and lives. The rising rates of incarceration married to the plummeting budgets for assistance say as much. So do the women’s corpses, decade after decade, year after year. For Aboriginal women, the histories and lived experiences of colonial occupation and violence not only continue to this day. They are intensifying.

A contemporary postcolonial, anti-colonial politics begins and ends with the State murder of Aboriginal women’s bodies, which runs from lack of services and assistance, from cradle to grave, to mass incarceration to dumping into the mass graves of historical amnesia. Another world is possible, and it requires more than an endless cycle of “discoveries” followed by commissions.

Della Roe, Shaun Harris, and the spirit of Ms. Dhu are represented by George Newhouse and Stewart Levitt, prominent human rights attorneys. According to George Newhouse, “It’s three years since her death and time’s up. Time’s up. These reforms need to take place and I’m hoping that the case will lead to real reform in WA.” Stewart Levitt adds, “It’s been like hell. How else can I explain it, you know? No-one’s been accountable for it, it’s terrible. The last three years has been like hell.”

Ms. Dhu was murdered by State systems of accounting. She was in jail for $3,622 in unpaid fines. The jail staff and the hospital staff decided she wasn’t worth believing or treating. She wasn’t worth the bother. And so Ms. Dhu died and remains dead. No amount of accounting will bring her justice. And her mother and uncle and kin and community are left to struggle with the State systems of accounting that value their lives as beneath assessment. What would justice for Ms. Dhu mean today? To begin, stop sending Aboriginal women to jail and prison. Stop the slaughter now.

Ms. Dhu’s mother, Della Roe

(Photo Credit 1: ABC) (Photo Credit 2: Huffington Post Australia)