WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that the following article contains names and descriptions of people who have died.
An Aboriginal woman has died in prison in Victoria less than two days after she was remanded in custody.
- The Coroner is investigating after the woman was found dead in her cell on January 2
- Advocates say her death raises questions about Victoria’s “over-burdened” justice system
- More than 400 Indigenous people have died in custody since the royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody in 1991
Her death, reportedly while she was withdrawing from drugs, has devastated friends and family, Indigenous leaders and criminal justice advocates.
The Department of Justice and Community Safety confirmed the 37-year-old woman was found deceased in her cell at the Dame Phyllis Frost Centre on Thursday, January 2.
“As with all deaths in custody, the Coroner will investigate and formally determine the cause of death,” a department spokesperson told ABC News. “As the matter is the subject of an ongoing coronial investigation, it would be inappropriate to comment.”
The woman, who had been on a Community Corrections Order and was charged with shoplifting, was refused bail after representing herself at Melbourne Magistrates’ Court on December 31 and remanded at the maximum security women’s prison.
Lawyers and prison support workers told ABC News that some of their clients in the prison believed the woman was withdrawing from drugs when she arrived, and said they heard someone crying out for help during the night before she was found dead.
Criminal law specialist Ann Valos said she had spoken by phone earlier this week to one of her clients who she said had been “traumatised” by the incident.
“The trauma for my clients who were in the same unit [as the deceased woman] … and for the woman herself and her family … it’s an absolutely dreadful thing to have happened,” Ms Valos told ABC News. “It’s shocking.”
Questions raised about ‘over-burdened’ system
The woman’s death comes just weeks after the final hearing of the coronial inquest into the death in custody of Yorta Yorta woman Tanya Day, who died in 2017 after suffering catastrophic brain injuries while locked in a police cell in Castlemaine in Victoria.
Advocates say it raises serious questions about the impact of Victoria’s tough bail laws, particularly on Indigenous women, in a system already under strain.
Jill Prior, co-founder and principal legal officer of the Law and Advocacy Centre for Women, where the woman had been a client, said she was shocked and saddened by the incident.
“This tragedy serves to highlight the fact that custody is not a safe place for women. Unless the alarming increase in the number of women being remanded in custody for minor offences is urgently addressed, it is only a matter of time until a tragedy like this is repeated,” Ms Prior told ABC News.
“Our legal system as it relates to criminalised women is over-burdened and under-resourced. Our current bail laws are placing an increased burden on this system, which is only exacerbated around the Christmas and New Year period where many support services are unavailable.”
The number of women behind bars in Victoria has grown rapidly over the past decade: as of June 2019 there were 578 women locked up, more than 13 per cent of them Aboriginal (less than one per cent of the population in the state is Indigenous) — though the government recently announced a boost in funding for programs aimed at shrinking that figure.
Alarm has also been raised in recent years over the high proportion of those on remand: the latest data show 46 per cent of all women in prison in Victoria — and 55 per cent of all incarcerated Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women — are unsentenced.
Experts have attributed this partly to a tightening of the state’s bail laws, which may have led to more women, including those charged with minor offences, being denied bail.
“The current laws and processes around bail and remand are simply inadequate to deal with the complex and traumatic histories of vulnerable women caught up in the criminal justice system,” Ms Prior said.
A Victorian government spokesman told the ABC that because the matter was the subject of a coronial investigation it would be “inappropriate to comment further”.
“Our thoughts are with the woman’s family and friends at what would no doubt be a difficult time,” the spokesman said.
‘When will Aboriginal women’s lives matter?’
Antoinette Braybrook, the chief executive of Djirra, an organisation supporting Aboriginal women experiencing family violence, said the woman’s death in Dame Phyllis Frost showed Aboriginal women in Victoria were still being “failed” by laws and systems that should instead be protecting them.
“Once again Aboriginal women’s lives are not valued,” Ms Braybrook told ABC News. “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?”
She said more resourcing was needed for community services — including legal services — that help women address the issues that often bring them into contact with the justice system: poverty, family violence, mental illness and drug and alcohol addiction.
“There needs to be more resourcing of Aboriginal community-controlled organisations … so that people can access support and be linked with health and safety services,” Ms Braybrook said. “We need greater investment in community organisations to prevent [women being incarcerated] in the first place.”
More than 400 Indigenous people have died in custody in Australia since the royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody in 1991 recommended sweeping reforms to address the massive over-representation of Aboriginal people in the criminal justice system.
Almost three decades later, the majority of the inquiry’s 339 recommendations have not been implemented, while the number of Aboriginal people behind bars — as well as Indigenous deaths in custody — has continued to climb.
An analysis by Guardian Australia of Indigenous deaths in custody in the 12 months to August 2019 found the proportion of deaths where “medical care was required but not given” had increased from 35.4 per cent to 38.6 per cent.
It also found Indigenous women were “still less likely to have received all appropriate medical care” prior to their death, and that in cases where an Aboriginal woman had died in custody, authorities were “less likely to have followed all their own procedures”.
Prison support workers who asked not to be named for fear of jeopardising funding arrangements and access said the woman’s death at Dame Phyllis Frost had left staff and inmates reeling, and that some prisoners had received counselling ahead of a memorial service being held in the prison next week.
“We have real concerns for the wellbeing of the women in prison now,” Ms Braybrook said. “We know many are traumatised by what has happened to this young woman and that many are in fear for their own lives.”
Jill Prior said it was “unacceptable” that almost 30 years after the recommendations from the royal commission were released, another family and community had been “torn apart by another senseless death in custody”. “The lives of Aboriginal women matter,” she said.