honour this sistagirl: stop transphobic and racist deaths in custody
Aboriginal woman, Veronica Baxter, was born in Cunnamulla country in outback Queensland and died in Silverwater Metropolitan Reception and Remand Centre, NSW. On 16 March 2009, she was found dead in her prison cell hanging from a bed sheet. She was just 34 years old.
Veronica, a Sistagirl, had lived as woman since she was 19. On 10 March, three days after Mardi Gras, she was arrested by Redfern Police on drugs charges and jailed at Silverwater — a male facility. If drugs were legalised and addiction tackled using a harm minimisation rather than a law and order approach, Baxter would not have been arrested and jailed.
Masses of questions remain unanswered about the period between her incarceration and death. The investigation process was a miserable failure. It took over two years — and more than 500 signatures on a petition initiated by Community Action Against Homophobia —before an inquest, which was over in half a day, was finally held.
The events leading up to Veronica’s death throw up many questions. Why was Veronica Baxter placed in a male prison? Why was she was denied access to her hormone therapy in jail? Withdrawal from hormone therapy is known to cause psychological distress in some people and Veronica was already withdrawing from heroin when she was jailed.
Veronica’s death was preceded by four emergency calls from her cell. What were these about? Who answered these calls? What was the response? Why were no records kept?
Why was there a hanging point in Baxter’s prison cell? This is a clear breach of recommendation 165 of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (RCIADIC) that hanging points be removed. State governments around the country have not only failed to meet their obligation to remove obvious hanging points in police and prison cells but also continue to open new prisons that do not meet this standard.
Why did it take more than two years for the inquest to take place? Why was there no investigation at the time? Why was a situation allowed to develop where witnesses were asked more than two years later to recall events, with no contemporary records available to allow for more accurate recall?
The policies and the practice.
The NSW Department of Corrections has a policy for managing transgender inmates in NSW prisons. It specifies that all who self identify as transgender have the right to be housed in a correctional facility appropriate to their gender of identification. Self-identification is the only criteria for determining those who are transgendered and an invitation to indicate how a person identifies is on the admittance form.
Transgender prisoners must be addressed by their chosen name and gender pronoun. All identity records must reflect their gender identity. They have the right to dress at all times in clothing appropriate to their gender identity and prisons are required to provide clothing and underwear appropriate to the inmate’s gender identity. Hormone therapy is to be supplied to those who were receiving it prior to being jailed. Transgender people who are placed in a NSW prison have the right to access specialist services, like those at the NSW Gender Centre, and they must be provided with a copy of the department’s ‘Management of Transgender Inmates Policy’ as soon as they arrive.
Another key document flagrantly ignored in the treatment to Veronica Baxter is the 339 recommendations of the RCIADIC. They were accepted but have yet to be implemented in full. Recommendation 92 calls for incarceration to be the last resort. If this recommendation had been implemented, Veronica Baxter, a heroin user with specialist health needs, would not have been locked up.
If the NSW Managing Transgender Inmates policy and the Recommendations of RCIADIC had been fully implemented, Veronica Baxter would still be with us today. But as her death shows, they are gathering dust!
On 12 May 2012, the Indigenous Social Justice Association — Melbourne (ISJA), will hold the second of its seasonal actions as part of an escalated year of action to build the movement to stop Aboriginal deaths in custody. The action will call for an end to all deaths in custody and commemorate the 3rd anniversary of the death of Veronica Baxter and the 21st anniversary of the release of the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.
The rally will also protest the recent spate of police shootings in NSW and demand independent investigations to hold the police accountable for the deaths and the injuries inflicted.
Rally, 11am, Saturday 12 May, at the steps of the Old GPO, corner of Bourke and Elizabeth Streets, Melbourne. For more information, or to be added to the ISJA e-list, contact [email protected]
We have no time to waste!
By Alison Thorne