Monday, 22 Apr 2024

State says sorry for Indigenous deaths in custody, as prisoners say nothing has changed

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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.

Corrections Minister Enver Erdogan appeared before the Yoorrook Justice Commission on Monday.

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

Erdogan confirmed the man’s death in a statement to the commission, but said he would not disclose the man’s name due to the family’s wishes.

Earlier, women prisoners at the Dame Phyllis Frost Centre told the inquiry that what happened to the late Aboriginal woman Veronica Nelson occurs regularly at the prison, but people only care when someone dies.

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

Yoorrook Justice Commission chair Eleanor Bourke.Credit: Joe Armao

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

Erdogan said on Monday he was unaware 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 prisoners to have access to health care and other services, the minister added, and conceded improvements could be made.

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.

“Personally, and on behalf of the state, I apologise for them and for the profound grief and trauma those deaths have caused,” Erdogan said.

“We must continue to address systemic injustices that result in Aboriginal people being over-represented in the criminal justice system.”

Yoorrook chair Professor Eleanor Bourke thanked the minister for his apology but said it wasn’t enough to just 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.”

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 could not say how much the Victorian government has allocated to providing those programs, but admitted it was not as much as the $2 billion going towards prison infrastructure projects.

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

Erdogan said there was only one child under the age of 14 in detention as of last week.

He maintained it was appropriate for the government to wait until 2027 before raising the age of criminal responsibility to 14.

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