First Nations readers are advised this story contains the name of a person who has died.
A Victorian coroner has found that the death of Veronica Nelson, a First Nations woman who died in custody in 2020, could have been prevented.
Coroner Simon McGregor called the bail laws that kept Nelson in jail a “complete and unmitigated disaster”.
The Victorian Government has responded by flagging that changes will be implemented.
An inquest into the death of Veronica Nelson, a Gunditjmara, Dja Dja Wurrung, Wiradjuri, and Yorta Yorta First Nations woman, began in April last year.
Nelson died in a Victorian prison on 2 January 2020, three days after she was detained at the facility.
She was initially arrested on 30 December 2019 on whereabouts notices and outstanding warrants relating to allegations of shoplifting.
Nelson was transferred to a maximum security prison after she was denied bail on 31 December.
She was extremely ill while in this facility. On her first night, she used the intercom in her cell over 20 times to request assistance and report her sickness. She was struggling to walk, and was cramping and projectile vomiting.
Nelson was given medical treatment and was moved to a clean cell the next day, but did not get better. More cramping and vomiting were reported on Nelson’s second night, with one officer telling her she “did not think there was any more” help they could offer her.
Nelson was found deceased in her cell by officers on the morning of 2 January, four hours after their last contact with her.
In April last year, a coronial inquest into Nelson’s death began. An inquest would allow the facts and circumstances leading to Nelson’s death to be determined. This would help to understand who was responsible for Nelson’s death and what preventative measures can be implemented.
On Monday, Victorian Coroner Simon McGregor delivered his findings from the inquest.
Findings about Veronica Nelson’s death
McGregor found that Nelson’s death was preventable and made 39 recommendations to avoid similar deaths.
This includes ensuring First Nations people can make informed choices and exercise their rights while under arrest.
A spate of recommended changes for the Victorian Bail Act were also put forward, which would make it easier for people to successfully be released on bail while facing charges.
Victorian bail laws
In 2018, the Victorian Government passed laws to elevate the threshold for bail to be granted. These stricter laws made it harder for Nelson to be granted bail, meaning she was forced to remain in prison.
McGregor also said that key errors were made by police during Nelson’s request for bail, which diminished her chances of successfully being released. He also said these bail laws have a “discriminatory impact” on First Nations people, particularly First Nations women.
Possible bail reform
Victorian Attorney-General Jaclyn Symes said the Government will “need to do more” to reform bail laws, and that they would “carefully consider” McGregor’s findings and recommendations.
“Our bail laws need to protect the community without having a disproportionate or unintended impact on those accused of low-level offending who do not present a risk to community safety.”
The government will consider the recommendations put forward by McGregor before they draft legislation.
Shadow Attorney-General Michael O’Brien said the Victorian Opposition would “work constructively” on changes to legislation and believe in “effective bail laws”.
Corrections Victoria has said they will also “carefully consider” the recommendations put forward by McGregor and have begun implementing new reforms for their prisons.
First Nations deaths in custody
A Royal Commission into the deaths of First Nations people in custody handed down its findings in 1991.
A Royal Commission is an independent investigation. The Federal Government calls Royal Commissions to investigate a subject considered greatly significant to the country.
It made 339 recommendations, many of which governments have not implemented.
As of November 2022, there have been 527 First Nations deaths in custody since the Royal Commission.