Coroner to hear Victorian death in custody 'should never have happened'
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Coroner to hear Victorian death in custody 'should never have happened'

Yorta Yorta woman Tanya Day, who died after sustaining a head injury in police custody in December 2017.

Yorta Yorta woman Tanya Day, who died after sustaining a head injury in police custody in December 2017. Credit:Justin McManus

When Aunty Tanya Day loved someone – and her big heart encircled many – she would cook them up one of her signature dishes: yabbies with garlic or a glossy, crisp pavlova.

The Yorta Yorta grandmother and respected member of the Victorian Aboriginal community had many passions: cooking, spending time with her family, and advocacy around Aboriginal issues, including deaths in custody.

But in December last year, her full life was cut short. Ms Day died after sustaining a head injury in a cell at Castlemaine police station, where she was held after being arrested for public drunkenness. She was 55.

Tanya Day's children: (L-R) Belinda Stevens, Apryl Watson (with pic of Tanya), Warren Stevens and Kimberly Watson.

Tanya Day's children: (L-R) Belinda Stevens, Apryl Watson (with pic of Tanya), Warren Stevens and Kimberly Watson.Credit:Justin McManus

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At the first day of the inquest into Ms Day's death on Thursday, Coroner Caitlin English said she would be making a recommendation to Attorney-General Jill Hennessy to abolish the offence of public drunkenness.

Victoria and Queensland are the only states that have not abolished this offence. It was a key recommendation of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody almost 30 years ago, and numerous inquiries since.

It is possible that if Ms Day been picked up in Moama, NSW – where she lived and where public drunkenness has been decriminalised – it's unlikely she would have been arrested and ended up in a cell.

Tanya Day (far right) at the Melbourne protest against Don Dale youth detention centre.

Tanya Day (far right) at the Melbourne protest against Don Dale youth detention centre.Credit:Justin McManus

Tanya Day was born in Deniliquin and raised on Moonahcullah Mission, near the Victoria-NSW border.

She had five children: daughters Belinda Stevens, Kimberly Watson and Apryl Watson and son Warren Stevens. Another son, Luke, died from SIDS when he was four months old.

The trauma of her baby son’s death stayed with Ms Day, and her occasional heavy drinking was a way of coping, says her daughter Belinda. Before her death, the 55-year-old had reduced her alcohol intake and was regularly going to the gym.

The court heard that on December 5, Ms Day arrived at Echuca station, and bought a ticket to Melbourne for her journey by bus and train.

CCTV footage showed Ms Day may have been unsteady on her feet, the court heard. At some point during the train journey to Melbourne she was approached by the train conductor.

He said she was “unruly”, her feet were blocking the aisle and she was unable to produce a valid ticket, the court heard.

The police were called, who removed Ms Day from the train - she could walk without assistance - and she was arrested for public drunkenness and taken to Castlemaine police station.

Police called the local Aboriginal Community Justice Panel, but were told Ms Day was not known to them, and could not be collected. Justice panels are staffed by volunteers who are on standby to assist any Aboriginal person taken into police custody.

Ms Day was detained in a police cell and assessed as “level three”, which requires detainees to be physically checked every 30 minutes. But this did not happen.

“Despite falls being observed [on CCTV], no-one entered the cell despite the clear requirement she be roused and a verbal response sought every thirty minutes”, said lawyer Fiona McLeod, SC, who is acting for the family and the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service.

CCTV shows Ms Day hit her head in the cell on five occasions.

From 4.50pm, she became unable to use her right arm, at 6.40pm she rolled off the bench and lay on her back on the floor. When the first physical check was done at 8pm, police noticed a dark, oval-shaped bruise on her forehead.

Ms Day was taken by ambulance to Bendigo hospital, where it was established she had suffered a large bleed to the brain. At 11pm, her blood alcohol level was 0.231.

This is the second time Tanya’s family has suffered the trauma of a death in custody.

Tanya Day was a loved mother-of-five and heavily involved in her local community.

Tanya Day was a loved mother-of-five and heavily involved in her local community.

Tanya’s uncle, Harrison Day, a skilled drover and horseman, died in custody in 1982 from an epileptic fit in an Echuca police cell, after he was arrested for an unpaid $10 fine for public drunkenness.

His death was examined by the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, which found supervision of the vulnerable prisoner was “grossly inadequate”, and recommended the offence of public drunkenness be abolished.

Tanya Day never woke up. A scan revealed a massive bleed in her brain and she was flown by helicopter to St Vincent’s Hospital in Melbourne, where she had emergency surgery to remove a section of her skull and relieve the pressure on her brain.

Tanya Day, right, loved spending time with family and friends.

Tanya Day, right, loved spending time with family and friends.

Her family say they were given inadequate and incomplete information about her condition, including conflicting advice that she had had an aneurysm, a stroke or haematoma.

Seventeen days after Ms Day was arrested, her children made the heartbreaking decision to remove her medical support in the intensive care unit.

After the court hearing, Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service head Wayne Muir called on the Attorney-General and Premier Daniel Andrews to follow the lead of the coroner and commit to working with the Victorian Aboriginal community to prevent further deaths in custody.

"It is time to act to abolish the offence of public drunkenness and properly fund sobering up and community health alternatives to incarceration," Mr Muir said.

Tanya Day with relatives.

Tanya Day with relatives.

In a statement, Ms Day's family said they would not rest until they got justice for her.

"Tanya Day, remember that name, remember that she was a loving mother, grandmother, sister, aunty and friend to many, she is not just another statistic," they said.

The next inquest hearing will be on March 19.

A spokesperson for Victoria Police said it would not make comment on a matter before the coroner.

Miki Perkins is a senior journalist and Social Affairs Editor at The Age.

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