Another black trans death in custody
- Published: 18 April 2010
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Demand ensues for open investigation into an Aboriginal trans death in custody in Sydney, writes Rachel Evans.
On March 10, 2009, three days after the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, 34-year-old Veronica Baxter was arrested by Redfern police. She was charged with six counts of supplying a prohibited drug and held on remand at the all-male NSW Silverwater Metropolitan Reception and Remand Centre.
Despite being a trans woman, she was placed in the maximum-security jail for men. Six days later, after a 14-hour break between checking her cell, she was found dead, hanging in her single cell.
Baxter was an Aboriginal woman from the Cunnamulla country, south- west of Queensland. She dressed, appeared, and had identified as a woman for 15 years and was known by family and friends as a woman.
Yet she was placed in a male jail against NSW government policy, which states that trans people be placed in the jail of their choosing.
Ray Jackson, president of the Indigenous Social Justice Association and elder of the Wiradguri nation, and has been fighting black deaths in custody for decades and campaigning around the Baxter case for a year.
He explained: “If trans people are post-operative transgender women, they are considered real women, and are placed within the women’s jail. If they are pre-operative transgender women, they are considered ‘male’ and are normally processed in a male jail.”
Trans people face a disproportionate amount of abuse, rape, and murder in jail. Consequently, in Australia, strict guidelines exist, requiring protective segregation of trans people from mainstream prisoners.
The Crimes (Administration of Sentences) Act 1999 states “any person received into the custody of the NSW Department of Corrective Services (DCS) who self-identifies as transgender has the right to be housed in a correctional facility appropriate to their gender or identification”. It says: “Transgender inmates are to be managed according to their chosen gender of identification.”
Trans women normally request to get placed in women jails. “After processing in the male jail, pre-operative transgender women are then given an opportunity to go to a women’s jail, but have to stay in solitary confinement because they are still considered ‘male’”, Jackson said.
“Pre-operative transgender women won’t be in solitary confinement in a male jail, but they will suffer more harassment, assault and abuse.”
This policy discriminates against poor trans people. In Australia it costs up to $20,000 for a male-to-female sex/gender realignment surgery and up to $14,000 for a double mastectomy for a female-to-male trans person.
Baxter was allowed to move about Silverwater, among other male prisoners, and had not been checked on for 14 hours before she was found hanging from her cell hook. This contravenes another Department of Corrective Service (DCS) policy of regular cell check-ups.
“We don’t know for sure about why she was placed in Silverwater. That’s because the NSW Department of Correctional Services has not released any paperwork regarding Baxter’s death”, Jackson said.
In August 2009 he sent a letter to the NSW state coroner demanding a full report be sent to the family. In October 2009, the coroner’s office replied that it was initiating a full investigation into the death of Baxter, and that it would be “inappropriate at this time to comment on the specific circumstances surrounding Ms Baxter’s death”.
The coroner’s court has advised it will be meeting in mid-April to make a decision as to the actual date of the Baxter inquest.
Queer rights activist group, Community Action Against Homophobia (CAAH) is demanding action on this campaign. Steaphan Markatony, CAAH co-convenor, said: “Was Veronica Baxter killed in custody by transphobic guards or inmates? We don’t know. The only way we will find out is if there is a full, open inquiry. Support CAAH’s campaign to get it.”
Sign CAAH’s petition for a public enquiry.
This article first appeared in Green Left Weekly.
Rachel Evans is a Sydney-based freelance writer and activist. She is one of the founders of Community Action Against Homophobia and a member of the Socialist Alliance.