The Victorian government’s decision to take over health care across the state’s women’s prisons has been welcomed by the partner of an Aboriginal woman who died in custody after making repeated calls for medical assistance.
The state’s corrections minister, Enver Erdogan, will on Friday confirm the contract for providing primary health services at Tarrengower Prison and the Dame Phyllis Frost Centre will transition from private firm Correct Care Australasia (CCA) to Dhelkaya (Castlemaine) Health and Western Health, respectively, on 1 July.
He said the providers were chosen because of their close proximity to the prisons, comprehensive range of primary health services, skilled workforce and ability to provide specialist services that “meet the distinct needs of women in custody”.
“We want to avoid people coming into contact with the justice system in the first place – but for those who do, the system has a duty of care to look after them and help them get their lives back on track,” Erdogan said in a statement.
“We recognise in the past, this hasn’t always been the case for women in custody. A more tailored and appropriate standard of healthcare is needed.”
Dhelkaya (Castlemaine) Health and Western Health will be accountable to the minister for health, as opposed to the state’s justice department, a change which Indigenous advocates have long called for.
It comes as CCA and the Victorian government are being sued by Uncle Percy Lovett, the partner of Veronica Nelson, who died in her cell at Dame Phyllis Frost in January 2020 after making more than a dozen calls for help over the intercom system.
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The Gunditjmara, Dja Dja Wurrung, Wiradjuri and Yorta Yorta woman’s death was the subject of a coronial inquest last year, which is expected to hand down its findings soon.
During the five-week inquest, the coroner heard from a panel of medical experts who said Nelson should have been taken to hospital after she was first examined.
Lovett, who in his submission to the inquest called for an overhaul of prison healthcare in Victoria, welcomed the government’s announcement.
“I hope this means that things will be better for the other women in prison, and that what happened to Veronica never happens again,” he said in a statement.
Nerita Waight, the chief executive of the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service, said it was a “momentous first step towards bringing healthcare in prisons in line with healthcare in the broader community”.
“Prison healthcare in Victoria is in a state of emergency. We speak to clients daily about poor quality healthcare in prisons,” Waight said.
“This crisis is particularly acute for Aboriginal people in prison who are more likely to die in custody because they didn’t get the healthcare they needed. Four Aboriginal people have died in Victoria’s prisons since Veronica Nelson.”
Jill Gallagher, the chief executive of the Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation, also followed the inquest closely and said it was clear that racism played a role in Nelson’s death.
“Her case shows that systemic racism is at play in our justice system from arrest to death. She was arrested on suspected shoplifting and they refused her bail. What’s that, other than racism at its worst?” Gallagher said.
“If she wasn’t incarcerated she would’ve been able to take herself to a doctor.”
Gallagher, who has long been advocating for a return to public health in prisons, said the new model signalled a “prioritisation of people before profits, particularly for our community”.
“Our community have endured the preventable tragedy of five Aboriginal deaths in custody in only the last few years,” she said.
“A public health model of care in our prisons is a great first step in addressing this.”
As part of the new public model, all First Nations women entering custody will also undergo an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health check and be given an integrated care plan tailored to them to support early detection and ongoing management of health needs.
Local Aboriginal community controlled health organisations (ACCHOs) will also play a greater role in delivering in-reach services, as well as helping prepare women for their release back into the community. Dhelkaya Health and Western Health also have designated Aboriginal health roles.
Several other Australian states including New South Wales, South Australia and Tasmania currently deliver healthcare in public prisons.
In Victoria’s men’s public prisons and a residential treatment centre, a new five-year agreement with the US-owned contractor GEO Group Australia was signed last week.
Both Gallagher and Waight said the next step was for the government to make the change in all prisons in Victoria.