Coronial inquest into passing of Heather Calgaret commences. 

Apr 30, 2024

CONTENT WARNING: VACCHO advises Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people that the following article refers to those who have returned to the Dreaming. 

The Coronial inquest into the passing of Yamatji, Noongar, Wongi and Pitjantjatjara woman Heather Calgaret commenced in Melbourne yesterday.

The inquest is examining Victoria’s parole application system, including delays, the availability of programs, and support for obtaining suitable accommodation, as well as the availability of appropriate levels of mental health support and chronic illness plans created for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

VACCHO pays tribute to the many family members, friends and Community who were in attendance to show their solidarity, and support for the much-loved mother of four.

Heather Calgaret’s brother, James “Chum” Smith described her as “the rock of our family” in a powerful statement delivered outside the Coroner’s Court.

Ms. Calgaret was only 31 years old when she died in custody at Sunshine Hospital in November 2021 after being found in a critical condition at Dame Phyllis Frost Centre Prison. Ms. Calgaret had been eligible for parole for almost one year, however she was denied parole in October 2021 one month prior to her passing for not having suitable accommodation.

The grief and loss caused by tragic and unnecessary deaths in custody further exacerbates the intergenerational trauma and cycles of disadvantage that undermine the health and wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Victoria.

According to Australian Institute of Criminology Data there have been 564 Indigenous deaths in custody since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody handed down its 339 recommendations to end avoidable deaths in custody in 1991.

In Victoria the deaths in custody crisis continues to deteriorate with more Aboriginal deaths in prison in the last 10 years than in the preceding 30 (12 vs 7).

VACCHO is a strong advocate for having Aboriginal health in Aboriginal hands, and this includes during imprisonment.

VACCHO reiterates its plea to the Victorian Government to directly allocate resources to Aboriginal health services, enabling them to offer crucial support to Aboriginal people in custody.

Since the ACT Government commissioned Winnunga Nimmityjah Aboriginal Health and Community Services to provide health services to Aboriginal people there have not been any Aboriginal fatalities in an ACT prison.

This approach ensures the delivery of culturally safe and appropriate care, promoting the health and wellbeing of people during imprisonment, while mitigating the likelihood of emergencies and tragic loss of life.

VACCHO Acting CEO Jim O’Shea emphasises the urgent need for reform and systematic changes to effectively bring to an end the tragic loss of life continuing to impact Communities.

“VACCHO extend our most sincere condolences to the family, friends, and loved ones of Heather Calgaret, and thank them for their determination and courage.”

“It is over thirty years since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. However once again Aboriginal families are left to deal with the consequences of systems that continue to grossly fail our Communities.”

“Heather was beloved Mum, sister, daughter, and friend. A person’s mental and physical health and wellbeing should not deteriorate whilst in custody. We need to see a focus on real care – culturally safe care – and we need to see humanity in action.”

“Aboriginal-led measures and methods of care must be central to the way forward to prevent more members of our Community from having their lives cut cruelly short.”

VACCHO sincerely thanks the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service (VALS) for their unwavering leadership and advocacy on behalf of Aboriginal Communities.

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VACCHO is the peak body for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health and wellbeing in Victoria – the only one of its kind – with 33 Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations as Members. VACCHO Members support over 65,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Victoria, and combined are the largest employers of Aboriginal people in the state.