In January 2023, the coroner’s report into the death of First Nations woman Veronica Marie Nelson while in custody was released. This much-loved and proud Gunditjmara, Dja Dja Warrung, Wiradjuri and Yorta Yorta woman died at 37 years of age, in agonising pain and alone in a cell on 2nd January 2020. Her 49 calls for help to prison staff went largely ignored and, after listening to the audio recordings of her final hours, Veronica’s mother Donna Nelson, has said “My daughter’s pleas for help haunt me every night and I can’t stop hearing her voice.”
Ms Nelson was arrested for the alleged and non-violent crime of shop-stealing and having previously missed a court hearing. Weighing under 40 kgs due to various complex and serious health issues, she was handcuffed and escorted by two police officers to the police station. During the subsequent court hearing, where Ms Nelson had no option but to represent herself, she was detained in jail after police opposed bail.
The coroner described the treatment she received while in custody as “cruel” and “inhumane.” Her death was found to be preventable. The system that failed her, and many other First Nations and poor people, needs to be radically changed.
The function of bail is that it allows a person to be released back into the community after they are arrested and charged with a criminal offence while waiting for a court hearing. Much has already been written about the history of changes made to bail laws after the public and violent crimes committed by James Gargasoulas in central Melbourne while he was on bail. (See “Time for a fightback: Victoria’s bail regime creates a sexist and racist catastrophe,” Freedom Socialist Organiser, April 2020). This and other prior high-profile cases led to a suite of changes to these laws. A much hyped “tough on crime” media display from the Victorian government and police proudly declaring that detaining people through remand would be the norm and bail the exception.
This presumption against bail is the leading reason driving the massive growth of people incarcerated in Victoria’s prisons. Amongst those harshly affected are First Nations women who comprise 89% of the cohort who are in prison on remand while awaiting a court hearing.
The coroner described Victoria’s bail laws as discriminatory and a “complete, unmitigated disaster” — reiterating that if the 1987-1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (RCIADIC) had been implemented, Ms Nelson would likely still be alive because, as stated in recommendation 92, imprisonment should always be a last resort.
Those who come into contact with the legal system get very different outcomes depending on the size of their bank balance and the colour of their skin. These bail laws are applied vastly differently within the same state, despite the magistrates and judges reading from the same bench book.
Other factors are also at play in the treatment of First Nations women, and it is important to analyse these in the context of Ms Nelson’s experiences in custody. There has been growing research focussed on misogyny in the medical system, which leads to women’s physical pain and symptoms often being disregarded, inadequately treated or completely ignored. The new National Women’s Health Advisory Council has been established to specifically address this issue of medical misogyny. In addition to this, it is well known that systemic racism prevents First Nations people from receiving high quality and timely healthcare within a mainstream and culturally unsafe medical system.
Ms Nelson’s experience demonstrates the egregious outcome that can occur when these two intersections of racism and sexism meet.
Ms Nelson’s grieving family and partner know the issues are systemic. They are bravely speaking out, determined that what happened to their loved one should not leave another family shattered.
Other families have trodden the same path and tenaciously campaigned for change. Beloved grandmother, mother, sister, cousin, Aunty Tanya Day is another example of an Aboriginal woman’s life needlessly cut short due to racist policing, which resulted in her dying in custody in 2017. Her family has successfully campaigned for Victoria’s public drunkenness laws to be changed after her preventable death. Scrapping public drunkenness laws and replacing them with a health-based response was Recommendation 79 of the RCIADIC. While this is an important change to be finally implemented, it is also 30 years overdue!
Ms Nelson’s family and her life partner of 20 years, Percy Lovett, are calling for the introduction of what they are calling Poccum’s Law. When Ms Nelson was a little girl and was shown the possums in the trees, her adorable pronunciation of the word “possum” as “Poccum” became a term of endearment used by her mother for Veronica throughout her life. Poccum’s law, in honour of Ms Nelson, calls for the following and more:
• Removing the presumption against bail
• Granting access to bail unless the prosecution shows that there is a specific and immediate risk to the safety of another person; a serious risk of interfering with a witness; or a demonstrable risk that the person will flee the jurisdiction
• Explicitly requiring that a person must not be remanded for an offence that is unlikely to result in a sentence of imprisonment.
Fifty-six organisations across the human rights, health and legal sectors, including the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Centre, Dhadjowa Foundation, the Human Rights Law Centre and Indigenous Social Justice Association – Melbourne, are in support of these changes and endorse Poccum’s Law.
Poccum’s Law needs to be implemented immediately and in full. The conscious decision by successive governments to not implement the recommendations from the RCIADIC has left families and activists fighting for changes that should have been put in place 30 years ago. Since the RCIADIC, over 540 First Nations people have died in custody and, without legislating Poccum’s Law, this number will certainly continue to rise. Until these legal changes are made, we will continue to count the cost of delay in Black bodies. This callous lack of political will shown by the Victorian government needs to be met with staunch activism and concrete demands for change.
In the words of Veronica’s mother, Donna Nelson, “My daughter’s death will not be in vain, and she will continue to lead the way for justice for others in death as she did in life.”
Sarah Ellwood, a member of Radical Women, represents RW in the Indigenous Social Justice Association — Melbourne. To work with Radical Women and win urgently needed reforms to Victoria’s bail laws, contact email@example.com.