Guard lied to dying prisoner saying nurse had been called: investigation

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A prison guard lied to Indigenous woman Veronica Nelson about calling a nurse to help her in the hours before her death.

Veronica cried out in pain and complained of leg and finger cramps before she was found dead in her cell at the Dame Phyllis Frost Center in Melbourne in January 2020.

She had been arrested three days earlier for shoplifting and was denied bail.

Veronica had made more than a dozen calls to prison guards for help on the night of her death, according to an inquest into her death.

Prison guard Tracey Brown was on the receiving end of those calls and, in an inquest on Friday, admitted she lied to Veronica five times when she desperately called for help.

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“I was doing my duty but could I have done better,” Ms Brown said.

As Veronica made increasingly anxious calls through the prison intercom, Ms Brown told her that she had alerted medical staff, but did not do so until almost an hour later .

When she spoke to prison nurse Atheana George, she told her that Veronica had fallen asleep, although she was unsure if that was the case.

Ms Brown agreed it was inexcusable that she had not walked the extra 10 meters to Veronica’s cell during her hourly patrols, to check if she was breathing.

Ms. Brown admitted in cross-examination that she breached her duty of care and made medical decisions about Veronica’s care that she was not qualified to make.

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dead on the ground

Veronica was ‘totally dependent’ on Ms Brown, trusted her and tried to follow her suggestions to take salt and shower to relieve her cramps, the court heard.

Veronica was found dead on the floor of her flooded cell around 7:30 a.m. on January 2, with the shower still running.

Ms Brown dismissed suggestions that she saw Veronica as just another drug scammer, but acknowledged that she didn’t think there was anything particularly unusual about Veronica.

“I have seen it before and I will see it again,” she testified.

Ms Brown said while she knew there had been a royal commission into Indigenous deaths in custody, prison management never told her there were particular risks facing Indigenous people in prison.

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The court also reviewed the minutes of a prison management meeting, where Tracey Brown was praised for the way she handled Veronica’s intercom calls, and a prison warden said that She was proud of the way Veronica had been treated in the last hours of her life.

Woman Yorta Yorta died of undiagnosed Wilkie syndrome, in the context of heroin withdrawal.

More than 60 witnesses are expected to be called during a month-long inquest, examining the adequacy of prison health care, the impact of Veronica’s Aboriginality laws and Victorian bail.

The investigation continues on Monday.

-PAA

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