Heather Calgaret Coronial Inquest to examine healthcare and parole system

Heather Calgaret was a proud Yamatji, Noongar, Wongi and Pitjantjatjara woman. She loved her culture and enjoyed painting and writing. Heather was the rock of her family, always helping and caring for everyone.

As a child, Heather loved school and would pretend to be a teacher. She would put all her toys in a row and pretend to teach them. When she was older and caring for nieces and nephews at home she would run classes for them. Even in prison, Heather was surrounded by books and would write all the time.

Heather died in custody at Sunshine Hospital in November 2021 after being found in a critical condition at Dame Phyllis Frost Centre Prison by her sister, Suzzane.

Heather had been eligible for parole since 27 December 2020 and would have been eligible for release on 16 February 2022. She submitted a parole application on 12 May 2020 and was denied parole on 12 October 2021 due to lack of suitable accommodation. If she had been granted parole, she would not have been in prison.

Today, the Coroner determined the scope for the Coronial Inquest into Heather’s passing, which will begin on 29 April 2024. The scope of the Inquest includes the quality and cultural appropriateness of healthcare provided to Heather at Dame Phyllis Frost Centre, including whether an 8mg dose of Buprenorphone she received the day prior to being found unconscious contributed to her passing. Following submissions made by VALS on behalf of Heather’s family, the scope now also includes examination of the process of her parole application, including delays in assessing her application, the availability of programs to enable her to be eligible for parole, and support for her to obtain suitable accommodation.

VALS understands that this is the first time a Victorian Coroner will examine the state’s parole process in relation to a passing since the toughening of parole laws.

Over the last two decades, Victorian Governments have made the parole system increasingly punitive and difficult. This has had a disproportionate impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and particularly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women like Heather. VALS has concerns that many people who are eligible for parole are being denied because of lack of housing availability, lack of transparency in the way the Adult Parole Board operates (particularly due to the lack of natural justice principles), lack of rehabilitation programs in prison, excessive delays, lack of access to automatic parole, and the parole revocation scheme.

VALS represents the families of several Aboriginal families whose loved ones have died in custody over the last 5 years. Almost all of these cases include issues relating to substandard healthcare provided in prisons. In January 2023, The Victorian Government announced private healthcare providers would be replaced by public healthcare services in Victoria’s women’s prisons in response to scathing findings in the Coronial Inquest into the Passing of Veronica Nelson – a proud Gunditjmara, Dja Dja Wurrung, Wiradjuri and Yorta Yorta woman who also passed at Dame Phyllis Frost Centre Prison less than two years before Heather.

According to an analysis by The Guardian Australia in 2021, Aboriginal people who died in custody were three times as likely to not receive all required medical care compared to non-Indigenous people. Aboriginal women were less likely to have received appropriate medical care prior to their death compared to Aboriginal men. Statistics like this should have forced governments into action long ago – Ms Calgaret may still be here if they took this crisis seriously.

Quotes Attributable to Aunty Jenny Calgaret, Heather Calgaret’s mother:

“Heather was always looking after everyone. She was the rock of our family – we always knew we could rely on her when we needed help. I will never forget her smile and her laugh, she was a great person.”

“Heather was a gentle person in a lot of ways. She was scared of planes and getting her ears pierced. I’ll always remember how petrified she was when she first got her ears pierced at the chemist in Dandenong – the woman had to do the piercing without telling her it was happening. And the first time she got on a plane she tore my whole shirt she was gripping it so hard just when we were getting on.”

“I got my house specifically so that Heather and Suzzane could stay here when they got parole. I had it set up right and we were all so excited.”

“I don’t understand why they blamed the house when they rejected parole, it didn’t make any sense. I would have looked after Heather. The whole family would have supported her. There’s no way she would have died if she was living with us.”

“I just think that if she got parole, she wouldn’t have died. I was trying to help manage her health while she was in prison, but I couldn’t support her from the outside. They did not give her the healthcare she deserved.”

Quotes Attributable to Suzzane Calgaret, Heather Calgaret’s sister:

“My sister was my best friend – my soulmate. She gave me so much love and she gave our whole family so much love. She was kind and caring.”

“We used to love playing in the rain together. We had a game where we would get a tiny umbrella, stand in the rain, and try to keep a dry patch on the ground between us. We also loved making mudcakes in the backyard – one time mum came home from church and the backyard was basically covered in mudcakes!”

“My brother died in custody in Western Australia. To have another sibling die in custody has been a million times harder. I should not have to accept that my siblings died in custody. Australians should not accept that so many Aboriginal people are dying in custody.”

“I never thought in a million years that I’d ever be witness to something so horrific. It’s been two years, still wake up in that place to my dead sister. I live with that every day. It’s fucked my life. No one should have to feel the way me and mum do.”

“My nieces and nephews won’t get to grow up with their mum. If Heather got proper healthcare, if she was allowed out on parole, her children would get to grow up with their mum. How is all this fair on them?”

“The parole board, the prison staff, and the nurses and doctors – they’re all on power trips or think they’re robodoctor. They’re supposed to help people get rehabilitated and never have to come back to prison, not treat them like dirt and ensure they never leave alive.”

“We need to know the truth about how they treated Heather and why she died. Everyone should know what happened and everyone should have to feel some of our pain, because that is the only way this will stop.”

“People need to understand that life is precious. Heather’s life was precious – it is a blessing and a gift to us. It shouldn’t have been gambled with by prison systems and by parole boards. It shouldn’t have been taken away from her like that.”

“I know there’s Koori Court for our people to use and that is helping our people, why can’t there be an Aboriginal parole board to help our people too?”

Quotes Attributable to Sarah Schwartz, Principal Managing Lawyer, Wirraway Police and Prison Accountability Practice, Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service:

“Heather’s family have waited so long to get to this point. They deserve answers and justice.”

“Heather’s family believe that she was unfairly denied parole in the year before her death at Dame Phyllis Frost Centre Prison. They have fought hard to convince the Court to examine Heather’s parole application and they have won that fight. It is a huge achievement and a testament to their strength and perseverance over more than two years now.”

“Victoria’s parole system is a disaster. Reactionary legislation introduced by successive governments has created an unfair and punitive system which disproportionately impacts Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women like Heather. The parole system in Victoria makes it harder for people to be supported in the community, discriminates against people who don’t have access to housing, and steals away people’s lives. The parole system is making communities less safe.”

Quotes Attributable to Nerita Waight, CEO of the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service:

“At least 560 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have died in custody since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody – that’s one death every three weeks. There’s been a spike in Aboriginal deaths in custody in Victoria in recent years due to poor prison healthcare and unfair processes like Victoria’s parole system.”

“VALS is proud to be supporting Heather Calgaret’s family. They shouldn’t have to be so strong and they shouldn’t have to fight to make Victoria better for everyone while they are working through their grief. But they are fighting to make Victoria better and VALS will be in their corner for as long as they need us


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