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)

Our continuing investment in the mandatory minimum sentencing and tough on crime failure

Why do neoliberal so-called democratic nation-States continue to invest, and heavily, in the failed policies of mandatory minimum sentencing and tough-on-crime policies? Today we learn that women are at the center of the United States’ mandatory minimum sentencing `experiment’ and of Australia’s `tough on crime’ adventure.

According to family research scholar Joyce Arditti, “An examination of their family backgrounds and social environments suggests that mothers involved in the criminal justice system are perhaps the most vulnerable women in the United States.” These most vulnerable women then become the most extremely vulnerable women, `thanks’ to the theft of their social and legal parental rights.

According to Over-represented and overlooked: the crisis of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women’s growing over-imprisonment, a report released today by the Human Rights Law Centre and Change the Record, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are the fastest growing segment of the prison population. At the center of that largely unacknowledged growth is women’s vulnerability: “`Tough on crime’ approaches also tend to rely on stereotyped ideas of who offenders are, with little consideration of who else may be affected – the most vulnerable members of our community, such as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, are unfairly swept up into the criminal justice system.”

In 2014 22-year-old 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, in the emergency room, within 20 minutes. She never saw a doctor. Her grandmother says she “had broken ribs, bleeding on the lungs and was in excruciating pain.” Her death was deemed tragic, but not enough to change policy.

In July 2016, Ms. M, a young Wiradjuri woman and mother of four children, was walking home, when, a little after midnight, police picked her up, and threw her into a cell. At 6 am, Ms. M was “found dead.” In New South Wales, if an Aboriginal person is arrested, the police are supposed to use the Custody Notification Service, which immediately contacts the Aboriginal Legal Service (ALS). This system is a modelNo Aboriginal person had died in police custody since 2000 … until Ms. M. But Ms. M was never arrested. She was thrown into the cell because she was said to be drunk. The police were “protecting” Ms. M, and so she died in their custody. Many, such as Gary Oliver of the ALS, believe that if the police had contacted them, “there may have been a different outcome. Fundamentally this is a process that has failed because a police officer has not followed a procedure.”

Today, former U.S. District Judge Nancy Gertner noted “that roughly 80 percent of the sentences she was obliged to impose were unjust, unfair and disproportionate. Mandatory penalties meant that she couldn’t individualize punishment for the first-time drug offender, or the addict, or the woman whose boyfriend coerced her into the drug trade.” Today, social justice advocates Vickie Roach described Australia’s tough on crime approach, “The criminal justice system …  punishes Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women for actions that are the consequence of failed child removal and forced assimilation policies. If we are truly concerned about justice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women however, we should be asking ourselves and our governments how we as a society have so badly failed these women.”

We invest in mandatory minimum sentencing and tough on crime policies because they succeed in intensifying the vulnerability of the most vulnerable: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in Australia, women of color in the United States. Vulnerability is big business. Increased vulnerability produces increased indebtedness. The more vulnerable and indebted women become, the more they are told to shoulder responsibility, individually and as a group, for all the wrongs that have been inflicted upon them, body and soul. Women die in protective custody, and it’s their fault. Mandatory minimum sentences are cruel and ineffective, especially for women, and that’s just fine. Tough on crime is destroying indigenous women and families, and that too is just fine. Our investments are doing just fine.

 

(Photo Credit: Echo)

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)