Kinew James? Maureen Mandijarra? Just more Aboriginal women’s deaths in custody

Kinew James

Kinew James and Maureen Mandijarra were two Aboriginal women who went into custody and never came out. They are part of the Commonwealth of Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women. Canada killed Kinew James; Australia killed Maureen Mandijarra. And the abuse of these two women doesn’t end with their death. Kinew James died in January 2013, and her inquest is finally going to take place in April 2016. Maureen Mandijarra died in custody in 2012, and her inquest is only now taking place. The State honors Aboriginal women with brutality.

Kinew James was a “troubled” young woman. She entered prison at 18, sentenced to six years. That doubled to twelve, thanks to “misbehavior” and to her deteriorating mental health. Subsequent years were a blur of self harm and attempted suicide; frequent relocation as one institution after another failed to help her; and long and frequent periods of solitary confinement.

But she was improving. Kinew James succeeded in graduating from high school while in prison, and, at the age of 35, was looking forward to getting out and moving on. On Saturday, January 19, 2013, Kinew James talked with her mother, and all seemed well. By evening, she was complaining of pains. That night, moaning and crying, she pressed the distress button … five times. The guards ignored her pleas, and are reported to have turned off or muted her alarm. After an hour, a nurse finally went in, and found Kinew James unresponsive. The nurse then waited 12 to 15 minutes to declare a medical emergency.

James died in the hospital, but she was killed long before the ambulance took her away.

Maureen Mandijarra was arrested for public drinking on the evening of November 29, 2012. She died in police custody the next day. Mandijarra was 44 years old. The police brought her in and dumped her on the floor in a police cell. She lay there perfectly still for at least six hours. She never moved, and no one, other than a cellmate, noticed, because no one ever checked. Over three years later, the inquest is now taking place. It’s taken so long because provincial and local police dragged their feet for years, and never provided any reports until recently.

Kinew James’ and Maureen Mandijarra’s stories are not the same story. What is the same narrative is that of State abuse of Aboriginal women. Like the United States, Canada and Australia have 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. Since the 1990s, the number of Aboriginal deaths in custody in Australia has skyrocketed, through one Royal Commission on Aboriginal Deaths in Custody after another.

State practices and policies generally criminalize mental illness, alcohol abuse, and poverty; and add additional punishments if the subjects at hand are women. For Aboriginal women who live with mental illness, alcohol or drug dependency, poverty, the sentence is death.

(Photo Credit: CBC News

Another Aboriginal woman dies of `natural causes’ in custody

In August, 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 complained, some say screamed and begged, of intense pains. She was sent to hospital twice and returned, untreated, to the jail. On her third trip to the hospital, she died, in the emergency room, within 20 minutes. It is reported that 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.

Ms. Dhu joins a long line, actually a mob, of Aboriginal women who have died in custody in Australia. In 1982, 40-year-old Nita Blankett was in custody for driving under the influence, a six-month stay. She complained of pain, became distressed, was ignored. Finally, and too late, she was dumped into an ambulance, where she died en route to the hospital.

In 1989, 38-year-old Muriel Gwenda Cathryn Binks died in custody. She was in for non-payment of a $30 fine. She complained of severe pains. No one listened. For 22 hours, she received no medical treatment. Muriel Binks died of multiple organ failure … for thirty dollars. That was the going price for an Aboriginal woman’s life in 1989. It hasn’t gone up.

The stories pile up; the women’s bodies pile up. People gather in protests and demonstrations, as they did today across Australia. The family calls for an inquiry. The State at first refuses, then relents. Elected officials promise action. Everyone is shocked.

Two years ago, Maureen Mandijarra died in custody. As of yet, there’s been no inquest date set. The police report, two years later, was only recently turned over to the coroner.

Meanwhile, Aboriginal women are increasingly destined for incarceration. In the last year alone, incarceration rates for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women have skyrocketed 18%. The government “response” is to cut funding Indigenous legal and family violence prevention services. Aboriginal? Woman? Need help of some sort? Have we got a place for you … prison.

Twenty-five years ago, commissioners looking into Muriel Binks’ death concluded, “the time for tolerance of such official neglect and complacency has passed.” Not.

Australia, like the United States, Canada, others, 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.

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

 

(Photo credit 1: Jade Macmillan/ABC News) (Photo Credit 2: ABC)