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)