This piece was first published by the Sydney Morning Herald.
Aunty Carol Roe is a remarkably strong woman. Her 22-year-old granddaughter, Ms Dhu, died a brutal and inhuman death – slowly over three days while locked up in the South Hedland police station for not paying around $3500 worth of fines. Despite this tragedy, Carol remains indefatigable. She is determined to see truth and justice for her granddaughter.
Although Ms Dhu died close to 18 months ago, the West Australian government is yet to fix the unjust fines system that saw her locked up. As a nation, we should stand alongside Carol Roe and be outraged by this inaction.
The coronial inquest into why Ms Dhu died began in Perth last week. The proceedings opened with hours of footage showing Ms Dhu doubled over, wailing in pain.
It showed Ms Dhu paralysed, being dragged from her cell and slung into the back of a police wagon, with an officer calling "shut up" moments before she died from pneumonia and septicemia - infections that had lodged in a fractured rib, one of the many injuries she sustained throughout a violent relationship.
The footage was unbearable to watch. It reveals Ms Dhu being mocked, ignored or dismissed by the very people who had a duty to care for her. It was made worse by the fact Carol had called the police station twice over the three days to check that her granddaughter was OK. Each time she was told that Ms Dhu was fine.
In evidence Carol said that if she had been allowed to speak to her granddaughter – to hear her voice – she would have known in an instant that something was wrong.
Carol is plagued by countless 'what ifs'. What if the doctors had treated her granddaughter properly? What if the police had listened to her cries for help? What if the laws in WA didn't allow vulnerable people to be locked up for unpaid fines? What if Ms Dhu was taken to a safe house rather than the lock up?
These are the questions that should be plaguing the WA government, too.
Western Australia's justice system is utterly out of balance. It has the highest rates of Aboriginal women's imprisonment in the country. In five years, the number of women locked up for unpaid fines has grown by around 600 per cent, and now a third of imprisoned women in WA are there for unpaid fines.
The WA Attorney-General has said that his government has no intention of substantially amending the laws that saw Ms Dhu locked up – laws that fail to properly distinguish between those who will not, and those – like Ms Dhu – who simply cannot pay their fines.
Such an inflexible approach to fines enforcement is deeply flawed because it ignores the realities of entrenched inequality.
And the coronial inquest has heard categorical evidence that Ms Dhu lived in a world underpinned by inequality.
One medical expert gave evidence that Ms Dhu's complaints would have been taken more seriously if she were a white, middle class woman. The next medical expert wasn't so explicit, but essentially said the same thing: Ms Dhu's imprisonment, her prior drug use, and her rib injury, provided "distractions" for the medical staff to see how ill she really was.
The inescapable truth unravelling in the coronial inquest is that Ms Dhu was shrugged off as "faking it" by doctors and police, precisely because of compounding inequalities: she was a woman, poor, Aboriginal, in custody, living in a remote part of Australia, using drugs, and was a victim of domestic violence.
This is dangerous prejudice laid bare – discrimination that Carol Roe says her granddaughter "paid the ultimate price" for.
Ignoring the systemic reasons behind Ms Dhu's death in custody is both myopic and risky.
Clearly, Western Australia must come to terms with some hard truths. While changes like making police lock-up's safer or improving the regional health system are important, the surest way to stop people like Ms Dhu dying in custody is to not to lock them up in the first place.
The thing is, Western Australia does not need to pioneer a new fines system to achieve this. It just needs to abandon its out-of-date approach and dogged 'lock 'em up' attitude, and look to other jurisdictions that have got it right.
NSW – with its fair and flexible fines enforcement system – hasn't locked anyone up for unpaid fines since the early 1990s. This is because vulnerable people are able to deal with their fines through undertaking community based programs, like counselling or training courses, which address the reasons why the fines were incurred in the first place.
More than 20 years ago, the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody said that prison should only ever be used as an absolute last resort. Western Australia desperately needs to learn this lesson. Ms Dhu should never have been locked up for unpaid fines, and certainly should not have died the inhuman death that resulted.
Surely now is the time to listen when Carol Roe says, "my heart bleeds, we bleed too". Now is the time for us all to echo Carol's calls that "enough is enough".
Ruth Barson is a senior lawyer at the Human Rights Law Centre. You can follow her on Twitter @RuthHRLC