Coming up to the fourth anniversary since the limp body of Indigenous transgendered woman Veronica Baxter was found hanging in a men’s prison, questions still remain over who is responsible.
On March 10, 2009 Ms Baxter, born James Llewellyn Drury, had her apartment raided and was arrested. She was subsequently charged with five counts of supplying prohibited drugs and one of ongoing supply of prohibited drugs.
Baxter was received by the Surry Hills Police Station and upon having her bail denied she was soon received by the Metropolitan Reception and Remand Centre (MRRC) at Silverwater on March 14. A day later, Ms Baxter was placed in a cell by herself and found dead hanging from her bunk bed on March 16.
After a two-year delay and a half-day hearing, the NSW Coroner concluded Veronica’s death was a suicide and there was nothing to suggest any failure by the department contributed to her death.
However, concerns were raised at the time about why a transgendered woman who openly identified herself as female and dressed like a female was taken to an all-male prison without medical advice. There were further queries as to why she was never noted as a risk of self-harm in two separate examinations.
These circumstances left NSW Greens MLC David Shoebridge alarmed over the treatment of transgendered inmates. He has consistently urged for a parliamentary inquiry into Ms Baxter’s death, arguing the coronial inquiry failed to answer questions over the treatment of Ms Baxter.
“Probably the overall concern is that we still don’t know the medical picture leading up to Veronica’s death … whether or not the police compiled with their basic guidelines in dealing with transgendered inmates,” said Mr Shoebridge.
It is speculated Ms Baxter had failed to receive her hormone therapy treatment in prison, which may have been a leading cause to her suicide. There was no mention of whether she was provided with ongoing hormone medication in the coronial findings due to missing documentation.
Moreover, the records on her last desperate calls to the prison’s emergency help line were not recorded and witnesses who may have taken the calls had denied any recollection of what was said.
These facts have led to suspicions over Ms Baxter’s death and whether the coronial inquiry was a cover-up for The Department of Correctional Service and Justice Health’s negligence and failure to properly adhere to the Transgender Inmates Policy.
“Veronica was in an extraordinarily vulnerable situation … a young Aboriginal woman who was withdrawing from her hormone therapy and her drug addiction. The system has failed to properly recognise that and protect her,” said Mr Shoebridge.
Minister of Corrective Services at the time, John Robertson – who has since been promoted to Opposition Leader in the NSW Parliament – has consistently declined to respond to these allegations in both his former and current role. City Hub’s attempts to contact Mr Robertson were unsuccessful.
Mr Shoebridge hit out at both the former and current state governments. “He [Robertson] has been next to silent on this … there was at best an appalling system break down that led to Veronica’s death. You would expect someone to seek some accountability. However the O’Farrell Government seems uninterested in the truth,” he said.
Ray Jackson from the Indigenous Social Justice Association (ISJA) described the search for answers as “hitting a brick wall”.
“It seems that the family doesn’t want to push the issue anymore. The questions are still there … and we can’t access her health records from the jail or from the Sydney Police Centre without the family support. Basically there’s nothing we can do,” he said.
Mr Shoebridge hopes there will now be “far more rigorous checks and balances when dealing with transgendered inmates … and a genuine commitment to ensure that no transgendered inmate is either withdrawn from hormone treatment or put in an inappropriate facility”.
The NSW Attorney-General, Greg Smith, was unavailable for comment with requests redirected to coronial findings.
Four years on, we are still little closer to learning the real reasons Veronica Baxter died.