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Death in custody a familiar story at Indigenous inquiry

AAPNEWS | Mon, May 15 2023 04:17 PM AEST

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Another Indigenous man has died in Victorian custody, as inmates say poor conditions that led to a separate prison death continue.

The 70-year-old Torres Strait Islander man died in hospital last week, Corrections Minister Enver Erdogan told the Yoorrook Justice Commission on Monday. 

His death means there have been 34 deaths in Victorian custody, including 24 deaths in correctional facilities, since a 1991 national royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody.

Mr Erdogan confirmed the news in a statement to the commission, saying he would not disclose the man's name due to the family's wishes. 

Earlier, women at the Dame Phyllis Frost Centre told the Melbourne inquiry that what happened to deceased Aboriginal woman Veronica Nelson occurs regularly but people only cared when someone died. 

Ms Nelson died alone in her cell in January 2020 from complications of a gastrointestinal condition amid heroin withdrawal.

A coroner found her death at the centre was preventable and corrections officials failed to provide her with adequate health care.

Mr Erdogan said he was not aware of the women's reports, but described them as terrible and said mistreatment should not happen. 

"We don't want what happened to Veronica to happen to anyone else," he said.

It was important for people in prison to have access to health care and other required services, the minister added, conceding improvements could be made.

Mr Erdogan also apologised for the state's role in Indigenous deaths in custody, noting most fatalities were the result of "critical and unacceptable" failings in the state's institutions.

Yoorrook chair Eleanor Bourke thanked the minister for his apology but said it was not enough just to acknowledge the trauma that has been caused.

"We need change," she told the commission. "We need a justice system that lives up to its name."

Mr Erdogan accepted most people who end up in custody have backgrounds of trauma that need to be addressed through therapeutic rather than punitive measures.

He also confirmed the government was spending about $421 per day to keep an adult in prison and about $5000 daily for a youth offender. 

Department of Families, Fairness and Housing Wimmera South executive director Adam Reilly apologised for the actions of his department and acknowledged the harm, pain and trauma they had caused.

He said there were varying degrees of cultural proficiency among bureaucrats at the department, and his biggest fear was that "power without knowledge can be extremely dangerous".

Mr Reilly pointed to one "near miss" where it was decided a 15-year-old girl should be sent to live on her country when it was clear doing so would put her at risk. 

The decision was ultimately changed, he said.

"I would like to think that we will get to a place where we understand the significance, the complexity, the fragility and the power that will come from culture and that we land at a place that says ... if you're going to come in contact or in any way influence an outcome for an Aboriginal person or family you need to satisfy us with these (cultural) qualifications," Mr Reilly said.

Unconscious bias and systemic racism within the department were not being sufficiently addressed despite his peers' best intentions, Mr Reilly said.

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