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Victorian government to take responsibility for healthcare in women's prisons, ditching private contractors

Giovanni Torre -

Victoria will stop outsourcing health care for female prisoners to a private for-profit company, it was announced Friday morning.

The government conceded it "hasn't always been the case" that the prison system had fulfilled its "duty of care to look after… (women in custody) and help them get their lives back on track".

Corrections Minister Enver Erdogan said primary health services at Dame Phyllis Frost Centre in Melbourne would be taken over by Western Health from July this year.

Health services at Tarrengower Prison in central Victoria will be taken over by Dhelkaya Health, which operates Castlemaine and Maldon hospitals.

"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," Mr Erdogan said.

"We recognise in the past, this hasn't always been the case for women in custody – a more tailored and appropriate standard of health care is needed.

"Western Health and Dhelkaya Health will provide the high-quality primary health services and skilled workforce needed to meet the distinct needs of women in custody."

The change means health care providers in women's prisons will be accountable to the state's minister for health, not the state's justice department, a change long called for by the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service.

Uncle Percy Lovett, the long-time partner of Veronica Nelson, a Yorta Yorta woman who died in custody at Melbourne's Dame Phyllis Frost Centre in January 2020, said the decision demonstrated "how bad the healthcare was in Dame Phyllis Frost Centre- Prison and how bad these companies are".

Ms Nelson was arrested on suspicion of shoplifting and refused bail in late 2019 and died three days later. An inquest heard she called prison guards a dozen times on the night of her death, receiving just one visit to her cell in response.

"I hope this means that things will be better for the other women in prison, and that what happened to Veronica never happens again," Mr Lovett said on Friday.

"Blackfullas also need Aboriginal Health Services, it's hard for us to talk to the officers and people inside."

Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service chief executive Nerita Waight said the change was "a momentous first step towards bringing healthcare in prisons in line with healthcare in the broader community".

"This is a win for the Aboriginal people who have advocated for better prison healthcare while dealing with so much grief and heartbreak," she said.

"Prison healthcare in Victoria is in a state of emergency. We speak to client's daily about poor quality healthcare in prisons.

"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."

Ms Waight noted that in his submissions in the Coronial Inquest of Veronica's passing, Mr Lovett called for an overhaul of prison healthcare in Victoria and for taking healthcare out of the hands of private corporations.

"Aboriginal people in prison must have the option of being provided healthcare by Aboriginal health services, like they do in the community. Only Aboriginal health services can provide culturally safe healthcare for our people," she said.

"Private corporations in prisons have a track-record of providing neglectful healthcare, of cost-cutting, of systemic racism and of covering-up deaths in custody."

"The next step is for the government to make this change in all prisons in Victoria and they need to do it quickly. Private for-profit corporations have no place in providing healthcare to Aboriginal people."

Ms Waight said VALS was proud of the organisation's clients who have advocated an overhaul of Victoria's prison healthcare system.

"Supporting our communities and amplifying their voices is a privilege," she said.

Last week the state government confirmed it had signed a five-year deal with CEO Group to deliver health care in Victoria's male prisons, replacing current provider Correct Care Australia.


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