news

Tanya Day died after being left alone in a cell. She shouldn't have been arrested in the first place.

WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that the following article contains names and descriptions of people who have died.

Tanya Day had been drinking when she hopped on a train to Melbourne on December 5, 2017, and nodded off to sleep.

As the train pulled into one of the stations on her journey, the conductor told her to move. Her legs were allegedly blocking the aisle in her slumber. He promptly called police requesting help with an “unruly” drunk passenger who could not find her ticket.

She was arrested for public drunkenness, and taken to Castlemaine police station at 3pm, to sober up. Shortly after 8pm, police returned to her cell, to release her from custody, and realised something was wrong.

WATCH: Apryl Day on The Project this week. Post continues after video. 

Video via The Project

“My brother was on his way and he [unbeknown to him] passed the ambulance that had Mum in it. When he got to the station he was told she’d been taken to hospital. They were very guarded in the information they provided,” Tanya’s eldest daughter Belinda Stevens told Mamamia.

When the Day family arrived at the hospital, they were not prepared for what they walked in on.

“Our Mum unconscious on a breathing apparatus, with a massive bruise on her forehead,” Belinda explained.

Belinda-DAY
Belinda and her siblings have been fighting for their mum since her death in 2017. Image: Facebook/Justice for Tanya Day.
ADVERTISEMENT

The family was immediately suspicious, but were assured by authorities that her injuries "weren't of a traumatic nature". They were told the injuries had been caused by a brain aneurysm, which Tanya had lived with her whole life, which had suddenly burst.

Tanya died in that hospital bed on December 22, 17 days after her arrest.

In April 2020, a coroner investigating the Yorta Yorta woman's death referred the case to the Department of Public Prosecutions, to determine whether criminal negligence has occurred.

As The Guardian confirmed, coroner Caitlin English ruled that an indictable offence may have been committed in Tanya's death, and that the offence of public drunkenness should be abolished in Victoria.

CCTV footage from inside Tanya's police cell, showed she fell five times while in police custody, the most significant of which occurred at 5pm. It would be more than three hours before anyone noticed, despite police guidelines stating that intoxicated people should be subject to a physical cell check every 30 minutes.

Her death was a result of a brain haemorrhage sustained from those falls.

Tanya's family fought to have footage from inside their mum's holding cell released publicly during her inquest. Image: ABC.

To understand the heartbreaking reality of these findings, it's important to consider the historical context first.

ADVERTISEMENT

In 1991, a royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody, recommended the abolition of the offence of public drunkenness. And yet, 29 years later, Victoria is one of two states in which it is still used today.

In fact, very few of the 339 recommendations handed down by that commission were actually implemented. In the decades since, more than 400 Indigenous Australians have died in custody, with not a single conviction has been handed down, despite many murky cases.

READ: 400 deaths, zero convictions: Australia's national shame.

"That public drunkenness law is discriminatory towards Aboriginal people. You can see that in the numbers. That law should have been abolished many years ago. Had that have happened 30 years ago, Mum wouldn't have even have been arrested. That's heartbreaking," Belinda told Mamamia.

The 14-day inquest into her mother's death last year, was the first coronial inquiry into a death in custody in Australia to consider whether systemic racism was a causative factor.

The coroner found the officers who arrested her, did treat her differently than they did another non-Indigenous severely intoxicated woman later that day, who was driven home by police without arrest or even a fine for the same alleged offence.

It was found the train conductor who called police in the first place was influenced by unconscious bias. Under cross examination, he admitted she wasn't "unruly" on the train that day, in fact she wasn't aggressive or disruptive in her behaviour at all.

It was found the officer in charge of the lock-up that afternoon, did not treat the 55-year-old with "dignity and humanity," and demonstrated "cultural complacency".

As protests continue in America against police brutality and systemic racism, following the death of unarmed black man George Floyd at the hands of police, Australia's own national shame is finally getting widespread attention.

"I hope there's genuine interest in the issue we have with Aboriginal deaths in custody in Australia," Belinda told Mamamia. 

"Unfortunately we had to wait for international events to have those discussions as a country. But this is an opportunity for us to arm ourselves with knowledge and stand together to stamp out the laws and behaviours that are putting Aboriginal people at risk. I hope it's the start of something bigger, and not just a moment in time that passes."

george floyd
George Floyd died while being arrested by police in the US, sparking protests across the country and around the world. Image: Twitter.
ADVERTISEMENT

Watching the protests take over the world is an emotional experience for the Day family, especially after watching the footage that led to George's death.

"It's obviously very distressing... and it takes us back to our experience with Mum, and fighting to have the footage released during Mum's inquest, so the world could see how she was treated," Belinda said.

TANYA-2
Tanya died in hospital 17 days after her arrest. Image: Facebook.

Tanya's death might have led to the first inquiry to consider systemic racism as a part of the cause, but for Belinda, her family, and every Indigenous Australian, these findings are not shocking.

"As Aboriginal people there's an inbuilt fear of police and authority. The figures show we are over-represented in most justice-related statistics. There is that fear when you're driving your car and you see a police vehicle, that they're going to pull you over. Unfortunately, it's passed through generations because it's how we as Aboriginal people have been treated in the past," Belinda explained.

ADVERTISEMENT

"We believe there is systemic racism in those institutions [to this day] and we believe that impacted on how they dealt with Mum on that day. But what was particularly painful was that people on the stand were asked would you do anything different and they answered no, knowing the outcome. How could they say that knowing someone has died?" she asked.

Belinda will be joining thousands in Melbourne on Saturday, as Victoria takes its turn to hold a protest in solidarity for George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement, and to raise awareness of Indigenous deaths in custody.

Demonstration For George Floyd In Sydney
Protests have already been held in some Australian cities, with Melbourne holding their own on Saturday. Image: Izhar Khan/NurPhoto via Getty.

"It's an opportunity to share Mum's story. It's sad because we have to relive the memories, but it's a chance to make sure her voice is heard. It feels good to be surrounded by people that are a part of the cause, and want to make change."

Belinda is encouraging all Australians, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, to support the Indigenous community, because as she points out, clearly history has shown them they can't do it alone.

"We can't get the job done by ourselves. We need others to stand with us," she said.

To those people who don't think there is an issue with systemic racism in Australia - with Belinda pointing to our prime minister's comments this week that we live in a "fair country" - she has this message:

"If you aren't adding positivity to the movement, please keep that to yourself. Maybe as a white Australian you can stand there and think that. But ask any member of a marginalised community, and they won't feel the same. "

Feature image: Facebook/Getty.

00:00 / ???