Outrage at prison van death of tribal elder

Article by Greg Ansley - Click for Photograph of Mr Ward

Outrage is growing at the death of a West Australian Aboriginal man left to cook to death in a prison van so hot that that he suffered third degree burns when he collapsed to its bare metal floor.

Even with an ice bath, hospital staff could not reduce the 46-year-old father-of-four's body temperature to below 41C after a four-hour ride through the Outback.

The tribal elder, known only as Mr Ward for cultural reasons, had been arrested for drunk driving.

West Australian Coroner Alastair Hope has recommended criminal charges be laid for a journey in a vehicle "not fit for humans" in 47C without air conditioning and with only a 600ml bottle of water.

Ward's family intend seeking compensation from the State Government and will begin civil action against the private contractor involved, C4S, which had previously been the subject of a scathing investigation in Queensland.

The Government has also been accused of operating a deficient fleet of vehicles and its policy of privatisation has been questioned by both Hope and the Prison Officers' Union.

The tragedy of Ward's death in January last year follows continuing concern at the treatment of indigenous Australians within the police and justice system, and at high rates of Aboriginal incarceration.

A long series of reforms was recommended after a federal royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody in 1986, and was brought sharply back into focus by the riots and court cases that followed the death in custody of Mulrunji Doomadgee on Queensland's Palm Island in 2004.

The Australian Institute of Criminology's most recent report on the jailing of Aborigines said that while the incidence of indigenous deaths in custody had fallen, they remained "over-represented" in police and prison statistics. They remain 17 times more likely than other Australians to be arrested or detained, and their rate of imprisonment is 13 times higher.

Ward was placed in the van by two C4S guards, Nina Stokoe and Graham Powell, for the 350km trip between Laverton and Kalgoorlie, in the Goldfields region, on January 27 last year.

Hope found that the van was seriously deficient, with all-metal surfaces, little light, limited airflow, no air-conditioning and no safety restraints for prisoners, and inadequate means of communication between prisoners and guards.

A panic button at the rear of the van was not prominently displayed and, if operated, set off a light on the dashboard that could not be seen in sunlight.

The two guards had further failed to check on Ward during the journey.

The guards told the inquest into Ward's death that they thought the air-conditioner was working but could not explain why they had not checked his welfare. They had stopped when they heard a thump from the back and found Ward unconscious.

But Hope said the guards' evidence was unreliable and untruthful at times, and that they may have colluded in presenting it.

He also said the Government and the Department of Corrective Services had contributed to Ward's "inhumane" treatment and terrible death by failing to ensure proper vehicles were used in the transport of prisoners.

The department had been aware of problems with the vehicle fleet, admitting that more than 60 faults had been reported since Ward's death.

Daisy Ward, a cousin of Ward, told ABC radio that the family wanted to see charges laid and that it would seek millions in compensation from the Government as well as taking civil action against C4S.


Aboriginal elder Mr Ward, who died trapped in 47C heat in a West Australian prison van, was not the first to suffer at the hands of the private contractor transporting the state's prisoners.

The company, C4S, was awarded the contract a year after a Queensland investigation disclosed that its operations had placed the lives of immigration detainees at risk during a seven-hour transfer from Melbourne to South Australia in 2004.

The ABC's Four Corners programme said that the investigation, by Keith Hamburger, then head of Queensland's Corrective Services, found that none of the detainees was fed during the journey. The investigation found that the company had endangered lives, humiliated the detainees, and had ignored appeals from passengers in obvious distress.

One of the detainees told Four Corners: "People [were] in the back shouting and crying and I was banging as well because I needed to go to the toilet. They didn't stop for anything, and I have to do it in the car."

Hamburger told the programme that he had been shocked and appalled by the findings, and was now worried by Ward's death in a C4S van.

"If these issues are being repeated that's a matter of great concern, because this is not rocket science."

Article by: Greg Ansley
Article Source: www.nzherald.co.nz Tuesday Jun 16, 2009

Racism kills: Demand justice for Mr Ward

Alex Bainbridge, Perth - 20 June 2009 - greenleft.org.au

"I would have been concerned if it was a dog or some other animal who died in those conditions, but since it was only a black-fella …"

This was one comment was made to a campaigner for Aboriginal rights in a discussion of the case of Mr Ward — an Aboriginal elder killed in custody in 2008.

The anecdote was reported to the June 17 meeting of the Deaths in Custody Watch Committee/Justice for Ward campaign. It reveals the level of racism that still exists in sections of Australian society — the same kind racism responsible for Ward’s death in the first place.

Ward’s case is particularly shocking because he was literally cooked to death during a four-hour journey in the back of a prison transport van on a 42ºC day.

The van compartment was metal. It had neither ventilation nor functioning air conditioning. It’s estimated the surface temperatures inside the van would have reached up to 56ºC.

An alternative, yet still secure compartment in the vehicle was available. Yet custodial staff did not place him in it, citing company policy as justification. The staff did not make any check on Ward, or offer a comfort stop during the journey.

There were multiple problems with the so-called bail hearing that led to Ward being taken on the four hour journey from Laverton (957 kilometres north-east of Perth) to Kalgoorlie.

Barrye Thompson, the Justice of the Peace who conducted the bail hearing, had not attended the relevant training and was not aware of his responsibilities.

Police had made two presentations about the case to Thompson without Ward being present. Ward was therefore unable to challenge the police statements — a violation of his right to natural justice.

Most importantly, the bail hearing was held without proper authorisation and in violation of several points of the legislation.

The report by coroner Alastair Hope stated: "a question arises as to whether or not the deceased was lawfully in custody at the time of his death."

Police ordered the transport van the day before the supposed bail hearing took place. In the words of the coroner’s report, "it would appear to have been taken for granted that the deceased would not be granted bail".


This fact is one of several that raise the question of racism. It is difficult to conclude that a white person in the same circumstances would face the same treatment (being held in custody overnight then transported in a sub-standard van for four hours) for a mere traffic violation (drink driving).

Ward had considerable community connections in his home town of Warburton and was a respected elder. Thompson told the coroner that he knew nothing of these connections.

When asked about the same matter by ABC’s Four Corners, he said "No. No. He was an Aboriginal in a very drunken state or very groggy state. That’s all I knew him as."

This is only one of several instances in which naked racism was revealed by the Four Corners report.

Regarding the vehicle in which Ward was transported, the coroner said "in my view any reasonably compassionate person who viewed the prisoner pod in which the deceased was transported would be shocked by its appearance".

The coroner wrote: "In my view it is a disgrace that a prisoner in the 21st century, particularly a prisoner who had not been convicted of any crime, was transported for a long distance in high temperatures in this pod."

Further: "The photographs taken of the pod do not adequately depict its appearance and make it appear larger, brighter and less unpleasant than it was on inspection by the court."

Clearly, it was racist prejudice from many of the people involved that contributed to this outrage.

This racism comes on top of a general prejudice against prisoners, and a disregard for their human rights.


Another factor that contributed to this outrage was the fact that the "custodial services" were provided by the private corporation Global Solutions Limited — now known as G4S.

On June 15 — 17 months after the event — G4S sacked the two officers who transported Ward. However, they were still using the same fleet of aged prisoner transport vehicles that were the subject of damning reports by the inspector of custodial services in 2001 and then again in 2007.

The 2001 report contained a quote from a prison officer that "the vehicles are not fit for humans to be transported in — we are just waiting for a death to happen".

Despite this, G4S is trying to shift all the blame on to the individual employees alone.

The June 19 Australian reported that "[G4S director of public affairs Tim] Hall said while the company accepted it had failed in its duty of care, it was the two officers who were responsible for Ward’s death".

By contrast, the coroner found that G4S and the Department of Corrective Services, as well as the two prison officers, had all contributed to his death.

While the two officers should be held responsible for their negligence, the big fish in the department and G4S should not be let off the hook for their parts in this crime. In particular, all privatisation of prisons and prisoner transport must be halted and reversed.

Furthermore, the government should immediately implement the recommendations of the 1991 Royal Commission into Black Deaths in Custody to ensure such tragedies never happen again.

Prison van death charges possible

The prison van officers who should be charged for manslaughter ... at the very least
WA's Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) has asked the police Major Crime Squad to inquire into the death of an Aboriginal elder in the back of a prison van ...

Last month the State Coroner found the two prison van drivers, Nina Stokoe and Graham Ward, and their employer had contributed to Mr Ward's death, and recommended the DPP investigate whether criminal charges could be laid against them.

In a statement the DPP Robert Cock has revealed he has contacted the Coroner's Court and police to help him gather information about Mr Ward's death.

He said he will make a decision on any possible charges when he has gathered all relevant information.

abc.net.au Thu Jul 2

More Articles:
Elder's family may sue after prison van death - ABC Australia
Australian Aboriginal prisoner 'cooked to death' in van - Guardian UK
Prison van firm under scrutiny after death - Liz Jackson for Four Corners - ABC Australia
Former minister admits death van failure - AAP/The Australian
Entire prison fleet 'must be scrapped' ABC Australia


the problem here is on of

anomymous user comment

the problem here is on of privatisation in the crude American sense. We are following in their footsteps. The Americans are running our country. We don't want them to be making money off of people dying. It is fucked. Wake Up Australia. Stop privatisation. We want our cities and lives back. This is against human rights and all sentient beings rights to live as free as they want to. Why have they even made these sorts of vehicles? The company should be held accountable by the state and the government. The government should be representing the people and taking this body to court and they should be shut down as a company. That is justice. So it does not happen to somebody else.

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