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‘Cruel’ Death in Australia Shows Need for Bail Reform

Coroner’s Report Slams ‘Discriminatory’ System

Donna Nelson, the mother of Veronica Marie Nelson, speaks to the media outside the Coroners Court on January 30, 2023 in Melbourne, Australia.  © 2023 Tamati Smith/Getty Images

On Monday, a coroner in the Australian state of Victoria issued their report on the death of a 37-year-old First Nations woman, Veronica Nelson. The report found that current bail laws are “discriminatory” and the failure of prison health services contributed to Nelson’s “preventable” death in custody. The coroner recommended urgent bail reform and referred the private prison healthcare provider to prosecutors over potential violation of the Health and Safety Act.

Police arrested Nelson on January 2, 2020 for shoplifting-related offenses. She appeared in court without a lawyer and a magistrate refused her bail, even though the alleged offenses were unlikely to result in a prison sentence if proven.

According to the coroner’s report, during the two nights Nelson spent in custody, she begged staff for help on more than 49 occasions as she suffered worsening vomiting and cramps. Fellow prisoners reported that Nelson, who was suffering opioid withdrawal and an undiagnosed medical condition, spent hours wailing in pain. During that time, the prison nurse in charge of her medical care sat nearby watching a movie. An autopsy later found Nelson had an undiagnosed gastrointestinal condition at the time of her death.

Victoria introduced tough bail laws in 2017 that have led to many First Nations people accused of minor, nonviolent crimes serving jail time on remand. The coroner slammed the laws as having a “discriminatory impact on First Nations people, resulting in grossly disproportionate rates of [First Nations people] remanded in custody.”

The Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service (VALS), which has long called on the state government to reform the bail system, said the Aboriginal imprisonment rate has almost doubled in Victoria in the past 10 years. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Australia has ratified, states that suspects awaiting trial generally should not be detained in custody.

Past coronial inquests have also urged better information-sharing between health services and prison officials, such as in the death of Mr. Jackamarra in Western Australia and Darron Brandon in Victoria. Sadly, these recommendations continue to be ignored.

Three decades since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, First Nations people across Australia still die preventable deaths and are incarcerated at disproportionate levels. The Victorian government should urgently implement the coroner’s recommendations, including bail reform, as well as the Royal Commission’s recommendations.

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