Veronica Nelson died in January 2020, after four days in a police cell. During the coronial inquest into Ms Nelson’s death, the Grata community made it possible for First Nations experts to give evidence.
In 1991, the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody criticised the over-incarceration of First Nations communities and called for sweeping changes to ensure fewer First Nations people died in custody. Very few of the recommendations have been implemented, and a further 505 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have died in custody since the report was published.
Veronica Nelson, a proud Yorta Yorta, Gunditjmara, Dja Dja Wurrung and Wiradjuri woman, died in January 2020, after four days in a police cell.
During the coronial inquest into Ms Nelson’s death, the Grata community made it possible for three First Nations experts to give evidence:
- Aunty Vickie Roach, an elder, writer and activist with lived experience of intergenerational trauma, drug dependence, medical treatment in custodial environments, specific features of treatment of Aboriginal women with substance use disorder and comorbidities. Aunty Vickie was the plaintiff in a major High Court case that confirmed the right of prisoners to vote
- Assoc Prof Ted Wilkes AO - a Noongar elder and lead harm reduction expert in policy and service delivery fields nationally
- Marjorie Thorpe - a Gunnaikurnai elder, a Commissioner for Victoria on the Bringing Them Home report (about the Stolen Generations), with extensive involvement in black deaths in custody, and holistic community-based health service provision for Aboriginal community in Victoria
Courts tend to dismiss non-academic expertise. However, Fitzroy Legal Service was able to persuade the coroner that the lived experience of Aboriginal people in the prison system must be taken seriously
It was one of the first times that an inquest has put evidence from lived experiences on an equal footing to academic evidence.
That set a hugely important precedent. Very few judges and coroners are First Nations people, and have a limited understanding of the structural disadvantage, intergenerational trauma and oppression that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities often face. Similarly, judges and coroners have almost never been to prison or experienced the stigma and discrimination faced by people with substance use disorder.
Hearing from experts from affected communities who have real, practical experiences of the prison system, trauma and substance abuse, is key to ending the over-policing and over-incarceration of First Nations communities.