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Wellpath Subsidiary Out of Australian Women’s Prison After Indigenous Prisoner’s Death

by Keith Sanders

On January 19, 2023, Corrections Minister Enver Erdogan announced that the Australian state of Victoria is booting the private healthcare contractor from the Dame Phyllis Frost Centre (DPFC). Effective July 1, 2023, Wellpath subsidiary Correct Care Australasia (CCA) will be replaced by the state-owned Western Health to provide healthcare. The change will affect not only the 538 women held at the prison but as many as 78 more held at the minimum-security Tarrengower prison, also in Victoria.

The announcement came just over three years after an indigenous prisoner was found dead in her cell at DPFC. Veronica Nelson died on January 2, 2020, after calling for help on the prison intercom system 49 times as she suffered from an undiagnosed medical condition and heroin withdrawal. After staff finally answered, a CCA doctor refused to send Nelson to a hospital, according to testimony from prison nurse Stephanie Hills.

Nelson was arrested on shoplifting and bail violation charges on December 30, 2019. An outside investigation conducted after her death found that no one checked on her as her symptoms worsened. A prison guard lied to Nelson “several times about calling for a nurse on her behalf,” the investigation found. Guards also did not report many of her symptoms to medical staff, “highlighting dangerous gaps in communication and protocol.”

“Veronica’s death was preventable,” Victorian coroner Simon McGregor declared.

CCA has a dismal track record providing medical services to Australian prisoners. In 2017, 65% of prisoners surveyed rated healthcare at DPFC “very bad” with a further 20% declaring it “bad.” A report put out the same year by the Victorian Ombudsman noted extremely long wait times to see a doctor. In Nelson’s case, the nurse on duty the night she died never read her file put together by medical staff.

CCA’s $700 million contract, which covered all 13 prisons in Victoria, began in 2012 and was set to end in 2023 – so Erdogan’s announcement means the contract will simply not be renewed. Also ending is a $50 million contract the firm has with Victoria’s youth justice centers. Healthcare at men’s prisons will be provided under a new contract with GEO Group, Inc., a Wellpath competitor.

Contributing to Nelson’s death was Victoria’s onerous bail law, which limits input from police officers who used to have wider discretion in minor offenses. Courts now determine bail amounts, and as a result people detained for crimes like Nelson’s needlessly languish in long-term facilities awaiting a bail decision.

Since her death, four other women have died at DPFC.

Sources: ABC News, The Age, The Guardian