Warning: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that the following article contains names and descriptions of people who have died.
Veronica Nelson Walker, a 37-year-old Yorta Yorta woman, was found dead while incarcerated on January 2, making her the first Indigenous person to die in custody in 2020.
On December 31 she was refused bail after appearing before the Melbourne Magistrates’ Court and placed in a maximum-security women’s prison. Only two days later she was found in her cell, having passed away overnight.
When she was refused bail, Ms Walker’s partner said that she was visibly suffering from drug withdrawal but had assumed that she would be properly cared for. It is alleged that she was refused medical help from the prison.
Lawyers and prison support workers who spoke to ABC News said their clients “heard someone crying out for help during the night before she was found dead.”
Ms Walker was charged with allegedly shoplifting whilst on a Community Corrections Order. Bail laws in Victoria, and around the country, are very strict and in recent years have gotten even stricter.
This has meant that more people are being locked up for very minor crimes. These laws disproportionately target the most vulnerable layers of society and create cycles of incarceration – even for people who are found innocent. The laws treat people as guilty before even receiving a trial.
Ms Walker’s family still don’t know the exact cause of her death. And they will likely not know for many weeks to come.
Ms Walker is sadly only one of over 400 Indigenous people who have died in custody since the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. In 2018 the government called for a review into the 339 recommendations made by the royal commission.
This review found that only two-thirds of the recommendations had been fully implemented. Many of the key recommendations had been ignored, and in some cases things have gotten worse.
One of the key recommendations of the royal commission was to lower the rate of Indigenous incarceration. This was said to be the best way to reduce Indigenous deaths in custody.
The commission concluded that “Aboriginal people in custody do not die at a greater rate than non-Aboriginal people in custody… what is overwhelmingly different is the rate at which Aboriginal people come into custody, compared with the rate of the general community.”
Despite this, since 1991 the rate of incarceration of Indigenous people has doubled. The 2018 report showed that the recommendations that focused on diverting indigenous people away from incarceration were mostly not acted on.
In other words, most deaths are preventable but the powers-that-be refuse to do anything.
Ms Walker should not have been incarcerated, let alone put in a maximum-security prison. Instead she should have been granted bail and been free to seek the medical assistance and help she needed.
The tough-on-crime approach, which has been adopted by both the major parties, has been an utter failure and needs to be scrapped. Additionally, healthcare and services to help people get over addictions need to be available to all, both in and out of prisons. These services should be free and easy to access.
Ultimately though, what is needed is real action to reduce the alarming rates of Indigenous incarceration. Instead of more commissions or reports, action needs to be taken to get Aboriginal people out of jail and to offer them a real future.
At the moment Indigenous people are exploited and oppressed much more than non-Aboriginal people. Since colonisation they have had their land, children, wages, and in many cases their dignity stolen.
All this needs to be rectified, but standing in the way are the profit interests of those like the mining giants who benefit from pillaging Aboriginal land. The system itself is what lies at the heart of the issues facing Indigenous Australia.
Racism, exploitation and oppression is tied to capitalism and it needs to be fought with solidarity and socialism. A society that was collectively owned and democratically run would have no reason to treat Aboriginal people as second-class citizens.
By sharing out of the wealth we create, and giving Aboriginal people the right of self-determination, we could create the conditions for Aboriginal deaths in custody to be eliminated and for Indigenous people to be treated with the respect they deserve.
By Kai Perry