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 Mariam Abdullah and Rebecca Maher? Just another death in custody

Mariam Abdullah, on Facebook and in custody

Mariam Abdullah, on Facebook and in custody

Barely eighteen years old, Mariam Abdullah died, July 19th, while in solitary confinement at the Perryville Prison in Arizona. Rebecca Maher, 36 years old, died, July 19th, while in police custody in the Maitland police station, in New South Wales, in Australia. Though the two never met, the circumstances and date of their deaths joins them in a tragic tale of State negligence and refusal. Both women deserved better, and in both instances, we all share the shame of their deaths and the manner of their deaths, for both of them needed help, and the State refused. Both of them were meant to be protected by State law and policy, and yet, on July 19th, both Mariam Abdullah and Rebecca Maher died … or were killed.

In June 2014, Mariam Abdullah, 16 years old, was arrested. After a year in the Estrella Jail, where juveniles charged with adult crimes are `kept’, she agreed to a plea deal that would result in three years imprisonment. From the moment she entered Estrella, Abdullah was in and out of trouble, which meant in and out of solitary confinement. According to her attorneys and to advocates who met with her, her mental health deteriorated perceptibly. Then she turned eighteen, and was moved to Perryville, and again to isolation. Six weeks later, she wrapped a bed sheet around her neck and strangled herself to death.

On numerous occasions, Mariam Abdullah asked, both in writing and in conversation, to meet with mental health staff. She knew she was [a] having problems and [b] deteriorating. She said so. Other than her lawyers and supporters, no one listened. Prison Law Office attorney Corene Kendrick wrote to Arizona’s Attorney General with concerns about Mariam Abdullah’s situation, noting that the State’s abuse of Abdullah was in violation of earlier court orders, the law, and human decency. Kendrick never received never received a response. Kendrick noted, “She [Mariam Abdullah] just seemed very sad and very isolated [and] was clearly traumatized when I talked to her. She’s a child, and she was being held in isolation conditions worse than what the adults were being held in — not that it’s okay for anyone to be held in isolation, but all of the best practices say to stop using isolation on children.”

Peggy Plews, of Arizona Prison Watch, added, “She was no angel — she’s the first to admit that. [But] she was a sweet kid, wanted to be a firefighter and save other people someday. Instead, we just threw her away. We all broke that kid long before she killed herself.”

Rebecca Maher, Aboriginal, mother of four, was walking home drunk when the police picked her up, ostensibly for her own good, and threw her into a cell, a little after midnight. At 6 am, she was “found dead.” Her death and the last hours of her life are shrouded in confusion and controversy. 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 model. No Aboriginal person has died in police custody since 2000 … until Rebecca Maher. But Rebecca Maher, though in police custody, was never arrested. She was thrown into the cell because she was drunk. The police were “protecting” her from herself, and that is the problem. 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.”

Family friend Kathy Malera-Bandjalan asks, “How do you take someone into custody who’s legally done nothing wrong, then detain them in a cell then they’re dead in four hours. Rebecca’s death is not going to be in vain.” According to Kathy Malera-Bandjalan, the family was never notified of Rebecca Maher’s detention and was notified of her death many hours later.

What happened to Mariam Abdullah and Rebecca Maher? Absolutely nothing, and that’s what killed them. Arizona has specific policies, forced upon it by court decisions that should have ensured Mariam Abdullah’s survival and well being while in custody. Arizona refused to follow its own policies. New South Wales has specific policies that should have ensured Rebecca Maher’s survival and well being while in custody. New South Wales refused to follow its own policies. It wasn’t one staff member here or one there. It was the State that decreed, and decrees that what happens in custody stays in custody, and whatever vulnerable woman happens to fall into custody can expect to suffer and die in custody. That’s the rule of law when the custodians are told they have no custodial responsibilities to care for their residents. So, rest in peace Mariam Abdullah; rest in peace Rebecca Maher. You deserved better. We all do. Instead, we all broke you and just threw you away.

Rebecca Maher

Rebecca Maher