What is “healthcare”? A tale of a murderer, a victim, and a tattoo.

[*** WARNING for detailed domestic violence description from the fourth paragraph on. ***]

My local paper has been abuzz with righteous taxpayer outrage over the State paying for a tattoo removal for a woman, who I’ll call JMN.

The story of JMN disrupts a number of neat stereotypical societal narratives about domestic violence, about victimhood, about killers, about the meaning of ‘healthcare’.

To go back to the beginning, at least to the beginning of the public part of the tale, JMN is a convicted murderer. She was found guilty nine years ago of murdering her “Internet lover”, MW.

According to published accounts of the trial, JMN’s husband MH, an abusive, violent gang member, found out about her relationship with MW, and “punished” her repeatedly. He violently cut off her hair, leaving her needing skin grafts to her scalp and hand. He beat her repeatedly, with fists, with pool cues, with a belt. He poured boiling water over her. He forced her to have a tattoo reading “Property of [MH’s full name]”. He punched her and choked her, leaving her needing hospital treatment.

And after all of this abuse and intimidation which left her in fear for her life, he visited and threatened the lover, then ordered JMN to kill him.

JMN shot MW under her abusive husband’s orders, backed by this violent intimidation, and she was convicted of wilful murder. She has been in custody ever since, with a minimum sentence of fifteen years.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, JMN now has mental health issues. (These are not described in detail in the press, nor should they be.) She was a victim of unspeakable violence (as well as being a perpetrator under duress), and is currently seeking criminal injuries compensation – which is what has triggered off the righteous-taxpayer-indignation. Her criminal injuries compensation was initially refused, and the case is now under appeal.

But the Righteous Indignant Taxpayers haven’t stopped there. The papers are now pawing over the rather insigificant detail that the State may partly fund tattoo removal for JMN. The Department of Corrective Services has committed to paying for half the cost of the procedure, which is expected to cost only $2000.


The shadow attorney-general is outraged, he says, outraged! How dare the Precious Indignant Taxpayer be asked to fund “cosmetic surgery”! The Corrective Services Commissioner has responded in sensible and general terms, saying that he “was acutely aware he had to take into account many factors when making difficult and sensitive decisions in cases that involved complex social, psychological, cultural and physical health considerations”, and that he made a judgement call, as he does on a daily basis.

JMN is statistically at very high risk for mental health problems, self-harm, and suicide. She is incarcerated, and suicide is the leading cause of death in Australian prisoners. She has been the victim of horrific domestic violence, and victims of domestic violence are five times more likely to commit suicide than average. The Commissioner took into account psychological reports and his personal interview with JMN when making the determination that the State would fork out a grand or two to take off the tattoo she was violently forced to get, the tattoo that is reminding her constantly of her abuse and contributing to her mental health difficulties.

Let’s get a little perspective. One acute psychiatric bed-day in Western Australia costs just over $1000. The cost of this tattoo removal equates to around one weekend stay in hospital for a relatively minor psychiatric crisis. We’re not talking huge pots of cash here. We’re talking about a sum that is absolutely tiny in the scale of costs involved with healthcare and with the justice and corrections system.

We expect, as a society, to provide healthcare for prisoners. Western Australia is committed, on paper at least, to providing prisoners with the healthcare they need, including mental healthcare. The general level of care we as taxpayers have committed to equates to the level of care that people should be provided in the public healthcare system. Tattoo removal is on the proscribed “cosmetic surgery” list for State hospitals, but that list comes with one very important caveat – that the procedure should be denied State funding if there is no “clinically significant” indication.

I can’t think of any more “clinically significant” indication than a tattoo someone was forced to get at the hands of her abuser, a tattoo that is making her sick. A tattoo that reminds her around the clock of his attempts at intimidation and dehumanisation. A tattoo that states outright that she is the “property” of this violent man. A tattoo that contributes to her greatly increased risk of self-harm and suicide.

Cannot we, as fellow humans, can find enough shreds of compassion to be comfortable with spending this trivial sum on what is likely to be a cost-effective contributor to the health of someone we are, as a group, responsible for?

This case is a touchstone for a whole pile of prejudices. It makes people particular uncomfortable, I believe, because it disrupts the nice little myths that nice little Indignant Taxpayers like to indulge in. The neat little “innocent-victim” narrative of domestic violence is disrupted by the fact that this women is also a perpetrator. The neat little “evil-murderer” narrative is disrupted by the fact that she was the victim of horrendous abuse, and that she committed the killing under fear for her own life. The neat little “nasty slut” tattooed-woman narrative is disrupted by the fact that she was forced to get this tattoo in the course of her husband’s abuse. The neat little “adequate healthcare” narrative is disrupted by the fact that tattoo removal usually lies outside of what some of us might usually consider to be “healthcare”.

All of this is adding up to a situation where the Righteous Indignant Taxpayers want to wash their hands of it altogether, though it’s clear they’d rather have a set of public stocks and rotten tomatoes to throw. They shout in comments “Give her nothing but bread and water”, “Why am I responsible?”, and “This woman knew what she was marrying into – hard cheese, I’d say”. Revolting.

Australia’s National Mental Health Policy states that as a nation, our key aims in mental healthcare include the prevention of the development of mental health problems and mental illness, the reduction of impact of mental health problems, and the promotion of recovery from mental health problems. These aims apply no less to people in custody, who are at extremely high risk and have particular mental healthcare needs that are all too frequently dismissed or actively resisted by people in a society that wants nothing more than to inflict as much suffering as possible on prisoners.

There’s an interesting wider question here, which is about our definitions of healthcare, and about the fact that the determinants of health often lie outside the very narrow systems and procedures that we label “necessary healthcare”. For example, we know damn well, on a macro scale, that poverty and inequality is a more important determinant of health than doctors and nurses and public education programmes aimed toward “behavioural modification”. Could not a piece of marked skin be a more important determinant of health in a single person than all the psychologists and pills in the world?

Categories: arts & entertainment, violence

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10 replies

  1. What’s even more annoying is the way the media is treating this. I heard about this story on the radio today (96FM, so it was the most cursory treatment of the story possible) and the version given was the most inflammatory one possible. The facts I’d gathered from that quick one-minute summary (plus outraged soundbite from the shadow AG) were that this woman had killed someone, and that she had a tattoo which she now wanted to have removed. No mention of an abusive spouse, no mention of domestic violence at all – just the straightforward “evil killer, tattooed slut, social parasite” narratives in their most blunt and uncompromising forms.
    Fortunately this was Australian commercial media, so discovering I’ve only been told the bare minimum of the story, slanted in the most conservative fashion possible, and aimed at creating the greatest amount of controversy (thus ratings, thus advertising revenue) in the shortest possible amount of time. Actual factual content is usually minimal, and it’s best to remember all the content is strongly slanted in the direction the media owners prefer[1].
    What’s even more annoying is that the national broadcaster (the ABC) tends to supply news which is much more slanted toward folks on the east coast of the country – the majority of the ABC news headlines I see online are for New South Wales. This means if you don’t live in either NSW, Qld or Victoria, you’re not likely to see much about your state in the latest news. Presumably we’d see something if one of the other states imploded, or if the secessionists here in WA decided to get to work with a hacksaw along the SA/NT border, but otherwise… well, we just don’t count.
    [1] Note for non-Aussies – the Australian media ownership pool is remarkably small indeed, since the majority of the commercial media in this country are owned by two major families (the Packers and the Murdochs… yes, those Murdochs) and the rest are basically hanging in there purely because there’s a few government policies which encourage “diversity” in the media. The more reliable news providers are the two government-funded broadcasters – the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and the Special Broadcasting Service (ABC and SBS, respectively).

  2. Thanks for this post Lauredhel. People’s callousness amazes me at times, and then you know, I hear someone do the ‘Chopper’ thing of ‘Harden the f*!k up’ and I get really angry: that’s NOT what this world needs, it’s plenty hardened already. 😦

  3. I wish I were in a financial position to just send the freaking $2000. It’s a small enough price to pay to let this poor woman know that compassion actually does exist. I’m horrified that she was convicted of murder in the first place.
    Was her abuser convicted (or even tried)?

  4. *headdesk* What’s wrong with having a tatoo removed that was forcibly put there in the first place? And what Kate217 said.

  5. Yeah I’m with Kate217 too. I can’t believe she was convicted in the first place. And I can’t believe these [ableist language redacted] don’t realise WHY it’s so important that the tattoo be removed.

  6. Any way to donate towards the $2000?

  7. The way this has been reported is just horrifying. That poor, poor woman. Thank you Lauredhel for presenting the story from this side, the true and terrible side.

  8. So, does anyone know what happened to MH, the abusive husband? Was he tried or convicted of plotting murder in the first, of conspiracy, of forcing someone else to wield the gun? How about convictions for the abuse?

  9. Kathmandu, as far as I can tell MH the husband was sentenced to 6 years in 2000 for a) one count of assault on JMN and b) one count of assault on MW. That’s from a sentencing appeals decision which is here. (PDF, likely to be triggering).
    I’m not a lawyer or legal researcher, though, so there may be much more out there I’ve missed.

  10. I am pretty uninformed — I don’t live in WA anymore — but I was under the impression that John Quigley was a pretty much a good person. Guess he’s like the rest of them: chasing cheap popular sentiment points, to hell with any principles you had before.
    None of those articles really go into the idea that she was pressured (to put it mildly) to commit the murder. How on earth was it a murder, not a mnaslughter, or something else??

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