One year ago, Veronica Baxter, an Australian woman who was both Aboriginal and trans, was arrested on drug charges. Less than one week after her arrest, she died in custody.
On March 10, 2009, three days after 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.
An attractive transgender woman, she was placed in the maximum security, male jail.
Six days later, after a 14-hour break between checking her cell, she was found dead, hanging in her single cell.Veronica 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 transgender people be placed in the jail of their choosing.
Of course, it’s important to note that it doesn’t matter how attractive Baxter was, whether or not her family accepted her true identity, and whether she had publicly identified and lived as a woman for 6 decades or one month. What was done to her was wrong, period. Suggesting that her manner of dress, personal appearance, and familial relations have any bearing on whether or not her identity should have been recognized and treated as seriously as any cis person’s is to further marginalize those trans* people who are among the most vulnerable.
The article also goes on to explain at length that while trans* inmates are supposed to be placed in the gendered facility of their choosing, the enforcement of this rule is transphobic, frequently dangerous, and otherwise discriminatory:
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.”
Transgender people face a disproportionate amount of abuse, rape, and murder in jail. Consequently, in Australia, strict guidelines exist, requiring protective segregation of transgender 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.” Transgender 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 told Green Left Weekly.
“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 transgender people. In Australia it costs up to $20,000 for a male to female operation and up to $14,000 for a female to male operation. 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.
Why Baxter was not moved to a women’s jail is currently unclear, because over one year after her death, and despite both requests and demands from Indigenous leaders like Jackson and LGBT groups like Community Action Against Homophobia, an investigation into her death has still not been conducted, and paperwork on her case has not been publicly released.
It’s impossible to adequately and accurately look at this case without considering both institutionalized transphobia and the legacy of colonization and atrocities committed against Aboriginal Australians.
Transphobia exists virtually everywhere. As the article notes, in Australia, violence is common against trans women when they are placed in male jails, and solitary confinement — quite arguably a form of violence in itself, seeing the institutional force behind it and severe mental repercussions — is common when they are placed in women’s jails.
While unable to find arrest rates for trans* Australians, it’s well-documented that Aboriginal Australians are arrested at hugely disproportionate rates to non-Aboriginals. In the 90s, Aboriginal Australians were over 17 times more likely to be arrested and 15 times more likely to be imprisoned than non-Aboriginals. Over-representation in prisons continues.
There is also a very long and ugly history of Aboriginal deaths in police custody. In the 80s, a Royal Commission on these deaths, and their disproportionate and very high numbers, was conducted. But despite the many recommendations for change made at that time, deaths still continue 20 years later. And while violence on behalf of others and neglect are common reasons for these deaths, so is suicide.
What exactly happened in the case of Baxter’s death and how it ties into this historical and social trend is currently unknown. But many are suspicious, and certainly want to find out.
Queer rights activist group, Community Action Against Homophobia 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 demanding a full, open inquiry into Veronica Baxter’s death. And if you know of further action that can be taken, please leave it in the comments.