As a coronial inquest continues into the death of a young Aboriginal woman in West Australia, Amy McQuire looks back at the warning signs ignored by a nation.
In 1982, Aboriginal mother-of-five Nita Blankett was serving a six month sentence for driving offences at Bandyup Women’s Prison in WA. On the 14th January, she became ill, and told the custodial officers that she was in the midst of an asthma attack.
The staff, some aware she suffered from chronic asthma, waited for three devastating hours, despite Nita’s requests for a doctor. At one point, she became distraught, anxious and began crying.
Early on, a nurse with a poor knowledge of asthma, examined Nita for five to ten minutes, but did not believe Nita’s claims she was suffering from an attack. Instead, the nurse thought it was more likely she was ‘working herself’ into one.
When Nita was finally sent for medical care, three hours later, she made her premonition.
“I will die anyhow,” she told a correctional officer transporting her to the ambulance.
“Why,” he asked, “Is it the first time you had an attack?”
She told him she had suffered them “all the time for 12 years”.
He asked “How did you survive?”.
Her response was tragic. ‘By good luck’.
A short while later, Nita died. She didn’t even make it to the medical centre.
Her death, like so many other black deaths in custody, was entirely preventable. And her concerns, like so many expressed before her, were disregarded, her pain was belittled. Nita died not surrounded by her five loving children, at an old age, but in the back of an ambulance with correctional officers as witnesses.
The only reason any person outside of her family may know of her name today, more than three decades on, is because she was one of 99 deaths investigated by the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.
I wonder how many more there were, who have faded into the background of history.
The Royal Commission uncovered not just the tragedy of her death, but the tragedies that came to define her life. Nita was a member of the Stolen Generations, but growing up she was able to escape the pathway to jail that condemns so many of our removed children.
It wasn’t until she turned 35 that she came into contact with the criminal justice system.
The Royal Commission traced a number of offences she was charged with – from disorderly behaviour, resisting arrest and motor vehicle offences – to the date her husband was arrested and charged with incest and assault.
Her offences were all committed under the influence of alcohol, and it was the arrest of her husband that seemed to have led to her final bout of numbing the pain – which in turn, weaved the pattern of offending.
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Many Aboriginal women find themselves behind bars for similar reasons – for driving offences, for the criminalisation of drunkenness, for protecting themselves against family violence. Not only are there more and more women being locked up for victimless crimes like unpaid fines (in Western Australia at least), there are more and more Aboriginal women who are locked up for protecting themselves from family violence.
These offences have roots in an unwanted inheritance – a legacy of trauma that has compounded with every generation stemming from the original invasion.
But Nita Blankett’s name, like so many other Aboriginal women, has been lost over time.
The deaths of Aboriginal women investigated by the Royal Commission were overshadowed. They were faceless and nameless; were not given precedence in national campaigns around deaths in custody.
But the failure to talk about Nita Blankett, to demand justice for so many others like her, has had devastating consequences. This is the reality today.
In the years following the Royal Commission, the numbers of Aboriginal women filling our nation’s dark places has sky-rocketed.
Since 2000 alone, the jailing rate of Aboriginal women has climbed by 74 percent.
This number should shock you. Aboriginal women are the fastest growing incarcerated group in the country, and as a community, we aren’t talking about it.
It’s not a ‘feminist’ issue. But what has become a ‘feminist’ issue are conversations about domestic violence that treat Aboriginal women as an afterthought, a statistic that must be accommodated because the rates are just too horrifying to ignore.
But the complexity of family violence in Aboriginal communities is assimilated by white feminist analysis that overlooks the fact that in First Nations communities it is due to a multitude of factors, and is not a result of a single factor.
Instead, Aboriginal family violence is talked about simplistically in the context of the criminal justice system – a racist institution that has continually let down not just Aboriginal women, but men and children.
Meanwhile, the unique situation of Aboriginal women, who are jailed for their visibility, their vulnerability, their poverty, their trauma, remains overlooked. And removing Aboriginal women from their communities is even more insidious.
Children who have parents in prison are more likely to end up in out-of-home care, where they are more likely to enter the justice system, perpetuating this vicious cycle of trauma and state sanctioned violence.
If you rip Aboriginal women from communities, you rip out their heart. You rip out the backbone, and it’s a backbone that is already brittle, having been beaten mercilessly over the course of two centuries.
What’s remarkable about all this is that more than three decades on from the pointless and cruel death of Nina Blankett, there are still people who are ‘shocked’ at the treatment of 22-year-old Yamitji woman Ms Dhu, who died in horrendous pain after being locked up for $3,000 in unpaid fines last year.
Ms Dhu was also a victim of family violence, according to her father’s statement in the coroner’s court yesterday. Already, the coronial inquest has unveiled another form of violence perpetuated against her – the structural violence that ultimately lead to her death.
Ms Dhu died of septicaemia and pneumonia after crying out in pain for three days. Like Nina Blankett, she was ignored, accused of ‘faking it’.
Her pain, like Nina Blankett’s, was belittled because she was an Aboriginal woman.
She died at the hands of a brutal white justice system which treats Aboriginal women as nothing more than objects to be warehoused in dark prison cells.
Our shock at her treatment says a lot about this country. If we had been shocked, 30 years ago at the devastating treatment that killed Nina Blankett… maybe Ms Dhu would still be alive.
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