January 18, 2020 09:13:08
WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that the following article contains names, images and descriptions of people who have died.
The last time Percy Lovett saw his partner of two decades, Veronica Marie Nelson Walker, was in the Melbourne Magistrates’ Court, just before she was refused bail and taken to the Dame Phyllis Frost Centre, Victoria’s maximum security women’s prison.
“She was a special girl, Veronica,” Mr Lovett, 54, told ABC News. “One of the brainiest I’ve met … She was just a beautiful woman. She had a beautiful smile.”
He didn’t know then he’d never see her again: he could tell Ms Nelson Walker, who was withdrawing from drugs, was sick, he said, but he expected she’d be looked after, that he’d see her back in court within a fortnight. But less than two days after she was remanded in custody, Ms Nelson Walker was found dead in her cell at about 8 o’clock on the morning of January 2.
The days since police showed up at Mr Lovett’s Collingwood home to deliver the news have been a blur. Despite burying his 37-year-old partner earlier this week, in a grave next to her late father, he still doesn’t know how she died and may not have answers for weeks or months while a coronial investigation is underway.
“I’m just shattered,” Mr Lovett said. “That’s my soulmate gone, I’ve got no one now … I won’t meet another woman like that again. She was one of a kind.”
Now he and her family want the world to know Ms Nelson Walker’s name: that she was a proud Yorta Yorta woman who loved art, poetry and talking about her culture, that she cared deeply for her friends and relatives, and that she’s joined a list of hundreds of other Aboriginal people who’ve died in custody in recent decades, many in preventable circumstances.
Adding to the family’s pain is that Ms Nelson Walker, who had been on a Community Corrections Order when she was arrested for shoplifting, received what they see as essentially a “life sentence” for allegedly committing a minor crime.
“I want someone to be accountable for this, because we’ve got to be accountable for what we do wrong, and something is definitely wrong in this,” Mr Lovett said. “You don’t just die like that.”
‘Why haven’t they checked on her?’
Reports of what happened in Ms Nelson Walker’s final hours have been dribbling out of the prison, passed to her family through lawyers and inmates who say on the night before she died, she was placed in an observation room, from where they heard her screaming out for help. She was reportedly checked on by prison staff at 4am but then not again until she was found dead.
Shaurntae Lyons, Ms Nelson Walker’s cousin, said she wants to know what assistance she received during that time.
“She wasn’t suicidal, so if she was in the observation room, what was going on? Why haven’t they checked on her?” Ms Lyons told ABC News. “They knew she was sick, she was withdrawing from drugs. Why wasn’t she checked?”
A spokesperson for the Department of Justice and Community Safety said that, as with all deaths in custody, the Coroner would 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 spokesperson said.
But not knowing how she passed away has been extremely difficult for the family, said Ms Lyons, who lives in Narrandera, where she and Ms Nelson Walker were “brought up like sisters”.
“It made me sick to lay her to rest and not know what happened …The duty of care Corrections are meant to have for every prisoner: why wasn’t that same care given to my cousin? Is it because she was a black woman? Is this how they treat our people when they’re in jail? Is this how they treat prisoners?”
When Belinda Atkinson was first told her younger sister had died in custody, she said she went into shock.
“I was like, ‘Are you sure?’ I rang around everywhere …I rang the police to confirm it was her.
“We didn’t know anything until we rang the jail ourselves and they told us,” said Ms Atkinson, who also lives in Narrandera.
“She used to spend time with us, in our younger days — she was going to school up here and was back and forth between here and Melbourne, spending time with family … trying to get clean. I knew she’d been in trouble — she developed a drug habit and had been … in and out of the system. But a lot of questions need to be answered. I want everyone to know what has happened and why.”
Lack of progress
Lawyers and advocates are now joining the family’s calls for a swift and comprehensive investigation into Ms Nelson Walker’s death, which has predictably drawn anger and frustration at what some see as a lack of progress in addressing the over-representation of Indigenous people in the criminal justice system.
“Ms Walker’s death must be rigorously and independently investigated,” said Nerita Waight, chief executive of the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service and co-chair of National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services.
“This means immediate steps should be taken to ensure all video and other evidence is retained, so that the truth of what has occurred can be brought to light.”
The fact that she was even in custody, Ms Waight said, was partly the result of an “archaic and punitive bail system that must be reformed” (Ms Nelson Walker was refused bail after representing herself in court). “Aboriginal communities, particularly women, are disproportionately impacted by the bail laws, leading to more Aboriginal people in prisons and a higher risk of Aboriginal deaths in custody. The government must act now to address this crisis.”
The most recent national snapshot shows more than a quarter — 28 per cent — of prisoners in Australia in June 2019 were Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people, who make up just three per cent of the broader population. Aboriginal women are particularly over-represented: a third — 33 per cent — of all female prisoners were Indigenous, with Aboriginal women imprisoned at 19 times the rate of non-Indigenous women.
A series of major reviews have examined the issue in detail, including a 2018 inquiry by the Australian Law Reform Commission, which described Indigenous people’s over-representation in prison as a “persistent and growing problem” and a “national disgrace”.
Its final report, Pathways to Justice, repeated some of the findings and warnings of previous inquiries, including the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, which in 1991 noted the disproportionate number of Aboriginal people in police and prison custody provided an “immediate explanation for the disturbing number of Aboriginal deaths in custody”.
It made 339 recommendations for change across a range of policy areas. But almost three decades later, more than a third have not been fully implemented and more than 400 Indigenous Australians have died in custody since, though rates of death for all prisoners have fallen.
A Victorian government spokesperson told the ABC that because the matter of Ms Nelson Walker’s death was the subject of a coronial investigation it would be “inappropriate to comment further”. “Our thoughts are with Ms Nelson Walker’s family and friends at what would no doubt be a difficult time,” the spokesperson said.
For the family of Ms Nelson Walker, the statistics, the lack of meaningful action, are a slap in the face, and evidence the criminal justice system is still failing too many Indigenous Australians.
“Justice, for me, would be that the recommendations from the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody are [implemented], and that black men and women stop dying in jail,” Ms Lyons said. “I just want justice so Veronica doesn’t die in vain like so many other black people have.”
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January 18, 2020 05:00:54
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