The death of Mr Ward: A case study in racist neglect

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On 12 June 2009 the West Australian State Coroner found that Warburton Elder, Mr Ward — a 46-year-old father of five and one of the last nomads born in the Gibson Desert — died of heatstroke sustained while being transported from Laverton to Kalgoorlie in the rear pod of a privatised prison van.

For nearly four hours, he was locked in the back of that van with no air-conditioning and no other source of ventilation. The guards driving him, from private contractor Global Solutions Ltd (GSL), now G4S, did not check on him during the journey. The trip was over 360 kilometres in extreme heat of 42 degrees celsius. A police reconstruction of the journey showed that the surface temperatures inside the van reached at least 50C.

At the hearing, evidence was given that the guards heard a thump in the back of the van. They found Mr Ward unconscious, with only a faint pulse. He was taken to the Kalgoorlie Regional Hospital.

Hospital staff spent 90 minutes attempting to resuscitate Mr Ward before declaring him dead. The hearing was told that Mr Ward had suffered burns on both his stomach and elbow. Forensic pathologist Gerard Cadden testified that during the trip, Mr Ward would have become delirious as his system started to shut down.

The Coroner, Alastair Hope, heard that the vans used to transport prisoners were not suitable for travelling long distances. GSL workers had reported faults with the vehicle, noting it had trouble starting, the CCTV monitor was faulty and it did not have a first-aid kit or spare tyre.

Faults with the air-conditioning unit in the vehicle had been reported to GSL more than a month before Mr Ward’s fateful journey. Hope said that the failure of the air-conditioning was foreseeable and “must have been obvious to all concerned.”

One of the guards, Nina Stokoe, told the court she knew the air-conditioning in the van had been playing up but that it was not company policy to check it. Hope heard that GSL had been warned just four months before Mr Ward’s death that someone would “eventually die” if the outdated and poorly maintained vans were not replaced.

The Coroner found the guards owed a duty of care to Mr Ward and that they breached that duty. He strongly criticised GSL for its lack of written policies.

If proper processes had been followed, Mr Ward would not have been in the back of the van. A flawed bail hearing took place. The Justice of the Peace has since said that he had not even read the Bail Act. “He was an Aboriginal in a very drunken state or very groggy state. That’s all I knew him as,” the JP said.

The Aboriginal Legal Service told the inquest the hearing was a “sham,” because there was no real consideration of Ward’s entitlement to bail and the role of the JP was merely as a rubber stamp. The police had already called GSL to arrange transportation before the hearing.

Hope found that, as Mr Ward was in state custody, the Western Australian government and the Department of Custodial Services owed him a primary duty of care and that this duty is non-delegable. Knowledge about the inadequacy of the vans used to transport detainees over long distances was well known by the Western Australian government since 2001.

Needed now! Among Hope’s recommendations, he said the state government must improve its handling of prisoners and review its justice system. He was also critical of privatisation. He described Mr Ward’s treatment as inhumane and a breach of international laws to which Australia is a signatory. He urged the WA Director of Public Prosecutions to consider laying criminal charges.

The WA Deaths in Custody Watch Committee demands:

  • Full and prompt implementation of the coroner’s findings;
  • That there be criminal charges laid against those responsible for Mr Ward’s death, as soon as possible;
  • Immediate termination of the contract between G4S and the State of Western Australia;
  • The return of responsibility for the custodial transport in WA to the Department of Corrective Services. An end to the privatisation of custodial services;
  • Use of air transport or video conferencing instead of long-haul vehicle transportation;
  • That immediate steps be taken to reduce Indigenous incarceration and recidivism rates to prevent further Indigenous deaths in custody;
  • A public inquiry into systemic racism or a Royal Commission into the administration of justice;
  • That the Coroners Act 1996 (WA) be amended to ensure that there are positive obligations on the WA government to respond to coronial recommendations within set periods; and
  • That relevant international human rights instruments and recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody be reviewed and, where they have not yet been implemented, that they be now fully implemented and funded in the administration of justice in WA.

    While we mourn Mr Ward’s death, we must hold the government to account. The community is outraged, and understandably so. Act now to demand changes. Don’t allow Mr Ward’s death to be in vain.

    Alexandra is a member of the WA Deaths in Custody Watch Committee. Contact them at dicwc@iinet.net.au for a copy of the petition raising the above demands.

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