Systemic failures lead to death in custody of Heather Calgaret

Heather Calgaret’s family outside the Coroners’ Court. Photo by Klaus Kaulfuss.
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The year 1991 marks the release of the findings of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. The 339 recommendations are wide-ranging, addressing the over-incarceration of First Nations people as well as the racist negligence meted out to the Indigenous prison population. This same year, 1991, Heather Calgaret, a proud Noongar, Wongi, Yamatji and Pitjantjatjara woman and talented artist, was born. Heather, a mother of four, had a nurturing and caring nature and was described by loved ones as the rock of the family. Heather was just 31-years-old when, in November 2021, she died in hospital after being found in a critical condition by her sister Suzzane at the Dame Phyllis Frost Centre. Her death in custody serves as a stark reminder of the injustices First Nations women face in the prison system and the fact that the Royal Commission’s recommendations have largely been ignored by Australian governments.

Heather’s death was appallingly unjust — it was also utterly preventable as she should have been out of prison on parole. In December 2020, Heather became eligible for parole. In May that year, she’d lodged her parole application. Then she waited and waited. In October 2021 — one month before her tragic passing and over a year after she had submitted her request — the Adult Parole Board declined her parole application. The reason cited was a lack of suitable accommodation once released. Inexplicably, the board dismissed an offer from Heather’s mother to provide housing and help with her rehabilitation. The failure to grant parole on these grounds also highlights the fact that the number of halfway houses or rehabilitation accommodation options for women released from prison is wholly insufficient. Heather was punished for the systemic failures of the state.

Heather’s mum, Aunty Jenny Calgaret, says, “I got my house specifically so that Heather and Suzzane could stay here when they got parole. I had it set up right and we were all so excited. I don’t understand why they blamed the house when they rejected parole, it didn’t make any sense. I would have looked after Heather. The whole family would have supported her. There’s no way she would have died if she was living with us.”

These circumstances surrounding Heather’s parole application being rejected highlight the punitive nature of the Victorian parole system. Those eligible for parole should be granted it automatically. There is a dire lack of resources available to support women like Heather once they are released. The current system is needlessly complex with an obscure application process. The Adult Parole Board also lacks transparency for its decisions.

Sarah Schwartz, a lawyer with the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service which represented the family at the Coroners’ inquest, agrees. She argues that “Victoria’s parole system is a disaster. Reactionary legislation introduced by successive governments has created an unfair and punitive system which disproportionately impacts Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women like Heather. The parole system in Victoria makes it harder for people to be supported in the community, discriminates against people who don’t have access to housing, and steals away people’s lives.”

Despite reforms to parole laws made in 2023 — after Heather’s death — Victoria’s parole legislation continues to neglect the need for support, rehabilitation and reintegration in favour of further controlling, oppressing and wreaking destruction First Nations communities.

Simran Hansra. Photo by Alison Thorne.

In addition to the appalling state of parole laws, the inquest into Heather’s death also explored the role of the negligent and culturally insensitive healthcare she received prior to her passing. While in prison, Heather was pregnant and applied to a program to allow her newborn to remain with her as recommended by antenatal, medical and psychological professionals. Heather’s application was rejected five days before the birth, leaving her traumatised by the immediate separation from her youngest child. Aboriginal Wellbeing Officer at the Dame Phyllis Frost Centre, Aunty Lynne Killeen, says that the program provides the safest and most nurturing space for both mother and child. Aunty Lynne confirms that rejections are a common occurrence, with only five First Nations babies being approved for the program out of the almost twenty pregnancies that have occurred in the last two decades. This experience underscores the double marginalisation that Aboriginal women face in the prison system — they are not only oppressed racially but also experience harrowing obstacles on the basis of gender.

Heather’s overall health also took a turn for the worse while in prison. Having entered the facility in relatively good health, once incarcerated she developed hypertension, liver and kidney damage, severe obesity, type-2 diabetes and depression. Despite her diagnoses making her a prime candidate for chronic healthcare planning delivered by Justice Health, Heather did not receive this specialist care. Healthcare referrals were often delayed — it took six visits to the nurse to be referred to psychological support. Medical staff are reluctant to heed the advice of women in the prisons. The Aboriginal Wellbeing Officer often acts as the women’s confidante and is also frequently ignored. Women complain that their requests to be seen by female medical staff are usually disregarded.

The complete lack of cultural awareness and blatant disregard for Heather’s health is a reflection of the wider societal problems that result in First Nations people being three times less likely to receive comprehensive medical care compared to non-Aboriginal people. Aboriginal women are even less likely to receive adequate healthcare in comparison to Aboriginal men. Heather’s death shines a spotlight on the racism and misogyny that is rife in capitalist Australia. This oppression combines to aid and abet First Nations deaths in custody.

Heather Calgaret’s death was cruel and unjust. In life she was loved fiercely by her family and friends and admired greatly by her community. She’ll be forever remembered by those who hear of her story. Her premature death exposes the sheer violence faced by Aboriginal people. First peoples comprise only 3 per cent of the Australian population yet make up 32 per cent of the prison population — this makes them the most incarcerated people on earth. These abuses simply cannot be allowed to continue.

Heather’s memory must be honoured by ensuring no one else is failed like she was. This requires reform to parole laws, the provision of high quality, culturally appropriate healthcare and a massive expansion of public housing that guarantees homes for everyone! Every recommendation of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, including that imprisonment be the sanction of absolute last resort, must be implemented in full — now. Heather Calgaret should not have been in prison in November 2021. Aunty Jenny Calgaret got to the essence when she said, “I just think that if she got parole, she wouldn’t have died. I was trying to help manage her health while she was in prison, but I couldn’t support her from the outside. They did not give her the healthcare she deserved.”

Simran is a member of Radical Women, representing the organisation as part of the Indigenous Social Justice Association — Melbourne. Simran has spent time attending hearings at that Coroner’s Court to enquire into Heather Calgaret’s death in custody. Contact her at rw.aus@radicalwomen.org