Riverine Herald

Coroner agrees to consider role of racism in Tanya’s custody death

By Riverine Herald

By Miki Perkins, The Age

THE Coroner has agreed to consider whether systemic racism played a role in the death in custody of Aboriginal Echuca woman Tanya Day.

Acting State Coroner Caitlin English recently ruled she will allow witnesses to be questioned about whether racism played a role in their decision making.

These will include decisions about Ms Day’s treatment, the options considered, the motivations of witnesses, and ‘‘potential unintended effects of their decision making’’, Ms English wrote in a letter to Ms Day’s family.

Ms English has also agreed to allow an expert report on systemic racism to be included in the material before the court and will allow witnesses to be asked about relevant training and policies.

Tanya Day was a mother of five and grandmother, who was heavily involved in her local Yorta Yorta community.

Her daughter, Apryl Watson, said her family was relieved and pleased the Coroner had accepted their submission.

‘‘One of our major concerns was that racism wasn’t going to be addressed or the system that failed mum all along the way,’’ Ms Watson said.

‘‘Obviously that’s important for mum but it’s important for our people, too.’’

While she was travelling on a V/Line train to Melbourne in December 2017, Ms Day was arrested for public drunkenness and taken to Castlemaine police station in central Victoria.

Her family says no-one entered her cell to check her welfare for about four hours — in contravention of protocol — and CCTV shows Ms Day hit her head in the cell on five occasions.

When the first physical check was done at 8pm, police noticed a dark, oval-shaped bruise on her forehead.

Ms Day was taken to Bendigo hospital, where it was established she had suffered a large bleed to the brain. She later died at St Vincent’s Hospital.

Ms English has previously said she would be making a recommendation to Attorney-General Jill Hennessy to abolish the offence of public drunkenness. The government has yet to respond.

Victoria and Queensland are the only states that have not abolished the offence. It was a key recommendation of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody almost 30 years ago, and numerous inquiries since.

Human Rights Law Centre legal director Ruth Barson, who is representing the family, said Tanya Day would still be alive if the Victorian Government had repealed public drunkenness laws, which criminalise behaviour for some people that is completely overlooked for others.

Ms Barson called on Premier Daniel Andrews to abolish the law.

‘‘If somebody is too drunk, they need help to get home or for an ambulance to be called – they should not be behind bars,’’ she said.

It is possible that if Ms Day had been picked up in Moama, NSW – where she lived and where public drunkenness has been decriminalised – it’s unlikely she would have been arrested and ended up in a cell.

This is the second time Tanya’s family has suffered the trauma of a death in custody.

Tanya’s uncle, Harrison Day, a skilled drover and horseman, died in custody in 1982 from an epileptic seizure in an Echuca police cell, after he was arrested for an unpaid $10 fine for public drunkenness.

His death was examined by the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, which found supervision of the vulnerable prisoner was ‘‘grossly inadequate’’, and recommended the offence of public drunkenness be abolished.