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Inquest into Victorian death in custody of Aboriginal woman begins

Rachael Knowles -

Please note: This story contains reference to and an image of someone who has died.

The Directions hearing into the death in custody of a Yamatji, Noongar, Wongi and Pitjantjatjara woman begins in Naarm today.

Ms Calgaret passed away at Sunshine Hospital after being transferred from Dame Phyllis Frost in a critical condition in November.

A mother to four children, Ms Calgaret loved her culture, family and community, and painting and writing.

Ms Calgaret. Photo approved by the family and supplied by VALS.

Suzzane Calgaret, Ms Calgaret's sister described her sister as a "kind, caring and lovable person".

"I loved my sister. We were best friends and soulmates. She was my right arm, and I was her left," she said.

"She was a kind spirit, a loving soul. She was the one to give everything, she would give constantly. She'd spoil me rotten.

"She loved her children so much, they were the loves of her life. She also loved her partner Zulli. She loved her friends and had a lot of friends. She was excited to see all of them when she got out."

Aunty Jenny Calgaret, Ms Calgaret's mother said her daughter was a "old mother hen type person" with a "kind heart, a kind soul" and the rock of the family.

"She was always looking after the children in the family, driving everyone around. She was always there to lend a hand when someone needed help," she said.

"She was always laughing and smiling. That's what I will remember when I think of her."

"She was the person that kept our family together, kept it going. We can't replace her. We will always miss her."

The circumstances around Ms Calgaret's passing remain unclear. Ms Calgaret was eligible for parole since December 28, 2020 and was eligible for release in February of next year.

"I found my sister collapsed in her cell before they took her to hospital. I am heartbroken that she has died," said Suzzane Calgaret.

"My sister was meant to be out on parole. We want answers.

"Why did her crime make the headlines, but she dies and it all goes unnoticed?"

The Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service (VALS) is supporting the family in getting justice.

VALS CEO Nerita Waight said her "soul aches" for the family.

"No one should die this way and no family should have to grieve for a mother, a daughter, a sister, a cousin this way. The State clearly hasn't learned from past tragedies," she said.

"How many more Aboriginal women will die at the Dame Phyllis Frost Centre prison before we put rehabilitation and reintegration above punishment?"

"Many of the Aboriginal women incarcerated are there due to distressing circumstances such as family violence, poverty and systemic racism, and rather than supporting them to be safe and successful in community we lock them away where they cannot be seen or heard."

Ms Calgaret was born the same year as the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody handed down its 339 recommendations. Since then, there have been at least 500 Aboriginal deaths in custody.

VALS, who represents the families of Aboriginal people who have passed whilst in custody, noted factors contributing to continued deaths in custody.

VALS referenced the "lack of equivalent healthcare services, harsh bail and parole systems, over-policing of Aboriginal people, and poor oversight and accountability mechanisms in the justice system are common features when an Aboriginal person dies in custody".

Responding to questions on the need for bail reform, a Victorian Government spokesperson told the National Indigenous Times the current bail laws were developed after the "devastating Bourke Street attack".

"In the wake of the devastating Bourke Street attack, we listened to community concerns and expert advice and strengthened bail laws to make it harder for serious and repeat offenders to get bail in Victoria," they said.

"These changes were designed to increase community safety by adding presumptions against bail for serious violent and sexual offences, particularly for those who offend while on bail, summons, parole, or a community correction order."

The spokesperson noted that the "best outcome" for vulnerable people is to "avoid contact with the justice system in the first place â€" particularly for at-risk groups including young people and Aboriginal Victorians".

"We have a strong focus on tackling the root causes of offending through early intervention - to prevent crime, reduce reoffending and provide genuine opportunities for Victorians to turn their lives around."

Currently in Victorian, the highest growing demographic in prisons is Aboriginal women.

VALS contributes this growth to the government's "tough-on-crime" agenda.

"The Andrews Government is spending billions of dollars on prison expansions and police so that it can lock up more and more of our people despite consistent evidence that it does not improve community safety," said Waight.

"We urge them to seriously consider the recommendations we have made in relation to bail, sentencing and parole as part of the Inquiry into the Criminal Justice System.

"If we want to invest in communities then we should invest in communities, not prisons.

"Aboriginal people have survived 230 of colonisation because of our resilience, because of our ability to innovate and deliver innovative solutions for community that work and are more cost effective than prisons.

"If the State would invest in communities the way they do prisons, we would see meaningful change in society."

By Rachael Knowles


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