Aboriginal death in custody: ‘The racism and violence of a broken justice system’
Aboriginal death in custody: ‘The racism and violence of a broken justice system’)

Veronica Nelson was left to die, desperately pleading for medical help in a Victorian prison cell in January 2020. Three years later, Victorian Coroner Simon McGregor released his report on Veronica’s death—fuelled by racial profiling, regressive bail laws and racist neglect of a woman screaming in agony. 

Searing, courageous statements have been issued by her mother, Aunty Donna Nelson, and Veronica’s partner Uncle Percy Lovett. Both are available online; Aunty Donna’s statement is reprinted below.

“Veronica should never have even been in jail in the first place”, says Uncle Percy’s statement. “The police officer who arrested her was off duty. She was just walking down the street minding her own business. She wouldn’t have been picked up if she was a white woman. The police target us Blackfullas.”

As the coroner reported, Veronica was refused bail after being arrested even though she was facing only “relatively minor, non-violent offences”—alleged shoplifting and missing a court date. She was one of the 44 percent of prisoners in Victoria awaiting trial, not serving a sentence after being convicted. 

This is because of regressive changes to Victoria’s bail laws pushed through by Daniel Andrews’ “progressive” government in 2017 and 2018. There’s no increase in community safety from this “reform”—just thousands of extra people brutalised in jail, and Veronica Nelson dead. 

As the coroner’s report states, the number of unsentenced Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people held in Victorian prisons tripled between 2015 and 2019. Victoria’s rate of imprisonment increased by 26 percent in the decade to 2021. For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, the rate doubled. 

Once she was in jail, prison guards and employees of the privatised medical service (Correct Care Australasia) ignored Veronica’s increasingly desperate and anguished requests for help on 49 separate occasions. 

“The prison guards, doctors and nurses, and all the people in charge neglected her and let her die”, Uncle Percy Lovett states. “They were cruel and racist. They lied to her, laughed at her, and told her to stop asking for help. All while she was dying. They treated her like she wasn’t human. The other women in prison were the only ones who tried to help.”

According to the coroner, Veronica Nelson—called Poccum by her mum and family—is one of at least 517 Indigenous people who have died in custody since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody issued its report in 1989. It’s no mystery why.

In February, NSW prison authorities told the inquest for Tim Garner that they’ve only just moved to “reduce obvious hanging points”—more than 30 years after the royal commission urgently recommended this reform. The royal commission recommended strict enforcement of the legal presumption in favour of bail for people accused of non-violent offences. Daniel Andrews scrapped it. The royal commission recommended self-determination and meaningful land rights for Aboriginal people. Government policy has moved relentlessly in the opposite direction.

Australian capitalism still produces the racism, poverty and brutality that result in Indigenous people being jailed at sickening levels. As the coroner points out, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are less than 1 percent of Victoria’s population, but are more than 10 percent of those in prison. This is effectively a death sentence for many hundreds of Indigenous people. 

This gives urgency to the call for solidarity from Aunty Donna Nelson: “I want you to fight with me and make sure that no other mother has to bury her child due to the racism and cruelty of individuals and the racism and violence of a broken justice system”.


Statement by Aunty Donna Nelson, Veronica’s mother

My name is Donna Nelson and I am Veronica’s mother.

Veronica was my first-born child, and she was my best friend. She was kind, caring and compassionate. She was loved by her family, her community, and her friends. She was a proud Aboriginal woman who loved her culture. She never harmed a soul other than her own.

Veronica did not deserve to die in such a cruel, heartless and painful way.

I chose for a long time not to hear or watch the tapes of her final moments, but I finally watched them during this inquest. It ruined me, and has changed me forever. My daughter’s pleas for help haunt me every night, and I can’t stop hearing her voice.

To the law makers, I want you to sit and listen to Veronica’s final hours. I want her voice to ring in your ears until you realise that our justice system is broken. Veronica should never have been locked up. You were supposed to change bail laws to stop a white male monster from killing people, but instead you filled our prisons with non-violent Aboriginal women like my daughter Veronica. Our bail laws need to change now.

To Correct Care Australasia, you tried to cover up my daughter’s death. You silenced the nurse who tried to speak up about your doctors. I’m glad that you lost your contract. I’m glad that this inquest exposed you, and I pray that my daughter’s voice will expose all the other times you covered up deaths in the past. 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.

To the Department of Justice, you were supposed to review the doctors and nurses and tell the coroner what went wrong. Instead, you listened to my daughter’s pleas for help, and saw no wrongdoing. You too were exposed. You showed the world that your supposed independent reviews are self-serving and can never be trusted. That you too are a part of this broken system, and you too need to be held to account and change.

This inquest showed that Veronica was failed at every level of the justice system—from the moment she came into contact with police on 30 December 2019. When she travelled on the tram that Monday afternoon, the police saw an Aboriginal woman and beelined for her. It was this profiling that led to her horrific death where her final words at 4am were calling out for someone to help her. She called out for her deceased father. That’s how much pain she was in. The response from the prison guard was to tell her to stop screaming as she was disturbing the other prisoners. As her mother, this will haunt me until the day I die. I hope it haunts all of you who didn’t help my daughter when she needed you the most.

The system continued to fail her after her death too—the prison, Dame Phyllis Frost Centre, Department of Justice, Justice Health all said that my Veronica’s death didn’t need an inquest, that there was nothing to see here, business as usual. You patted each other on the back for a job well done in your debrief. Aboriginal women being incarcerated and dying in custody is so normalised that there would be no inquest if it weren’t for the bravery and care of Coroners Court who saw that Veronica’s death wasn’t right.

To Coroner Simon McGregor, I thank you for listening to my Poccum. I thank you and your team for your bravery. I thank my legal team, Robinson Gill Lawyers, Ali, Rishi and Stella for standing by me and fiercely fighting for my daughter. I want to thank Meghan, Apryl, Crystal, Tarneen, Troy, Stacey, all the interested parties and the experts who helped expose this broken justice system.

I thank everyone who listened to my Poccum, and who have fought for her dignity and for justice.  

I want you all to listen to my Poccum, and remember her voice, and to stand with me to demand a better justice system. Her death never should have happened, and I want you to fight with me and make sure that no other mother has to bury her child due to the racism and cruelty of individuals and the racism and violence of a broken justice system. I will not let my Poccum’s death be forgotten. I urge you all to remember her too and support our family in our continued fight for change and for justice for my daughter.

My Poccum should not have been locked up. She should not have begged for her life. She should be here with me today. If we do not change bail laws today, it will be someone else’s daughter tomorrow.

To the Premier Daniel Andrews, you should hang your head in shame. You need to do your job and get our daughters out of prisons. No more cover ups. No more unintended consequences. It’s time to save our daughters. It’s time to change the law. It’s time for Poccum’s law.

Aunty Donna Nelson

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