Yes we can achieve justice for Indigenous Australians

Michael Mullins | | 17th August 2009 + RELATED ARTICLES

Justice for Mr Ward

The Edmund Rice Institute for Social Justice, Fremantle, has called for a large ex-gratia payment to the family of Mr Ward. The 46-year-old Aboriginal elder and cultural leader died on 27 January 2008 while being transported from Laverton to Kalgoorlie, in the back of a privatised prison van. His first name cannot be revealed for cultural reasons.

The report of Coroner Alistair Hope was published on 12 June this year. It concluded that Ward died of heatstroke, and that the WA Department of Corrective Services, the prison transport company GSL (now G4S) and the two drivers were jointly to blame. The coroner said Ward's treatment was inhumane, and a breach of international laws to which Australia is a signatory.

In a statement issued after the Coroner's report, Edmund Rice Institute director David Freeman said the report confirmed fears that this is 'one of the worst human rights tragedies in Australian living memory'.

Aside from the ex-gratia payment, the Institute also urged a complete rethink of the community’s engagement with Aboriginal persons. David Freeman outlined ten points of concern in a statement issued after the coroner's findings. These include a factor that is rarely alluded to, which is that Aboriginal Australians frequently suffer in silence, and therefore much of the suffering goes unnoticed.

'Our society’s de facto expectation [is] that if we don’t hear a peep from Aboriginal people — even when we make it impossible for them to communicate with us — there is no cause for concern.'

He suggested that Aboriginal prisoners deserve a greater duty of care, given the well-known 17-year longevity gap. Mr Ward was only 46 years old, but was regarded as an 'elder' — 46 is effectively 63 years old in non-Aboriginal terms.

David Freeman contacted Eureka Street recently to tell us that there has been little action since the handing down of the Coroner's report on 12 June. Most recently, the WA Department of Corrective Services has talked of terminating the contract of the security firm, when the Department itself was found to share the blame.
Another way forward is evident in a recent speech delivered by Governor-General Quentin Bryce at the Second National Indigenous Courts Conference in Rockhampton. It would seem to address David Freeman's call for a rethink of community engagement with Aboriginal persons. There are various Indigenous Courts in different states, including the Aboriginal Community Court in WA and the Murri Court in Queensland.

The Governor-General spoke of her visit to the Murri Court in Rockhampton, not long after it was established in 2003:

'I sensed the extraordinary power of a court calibrated to Indigenous belonging; the Elders' endeavours in keeping people out of jail, creating bridges of trust, building and supporting communities ...

'I had a deep and abiding respect for the Law; its capacity to enshrine and protect human dignity, to uphold our highest ideals of equality and justice. Yet here in the Murri court I found something different. Beyond the sacredness of Law, a rich and compassionate wisdom shining through the faces of the Elders.'
It is certainly too late for Mr Ward. But in her own quiet way, the Governor-General is uttering what has become the ubiquitous 'yes we can' cry of this moment in history, and it could mean Indigenous Australians enjoy an access to justice that compares with the rest of the population.

Michael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street.

Coroner Alastair Hope finds Mr Ward's death wholly avoidable

Aleisha Preedy AAP | | June 12, 2009
The Coroner has found that "inhumane" treatment led to the death of an Aboriginal elder in the back of a prison van on a scorching day in outback WA.

WA Coroner Alastair Hope said the death of Mr Ward, 46, whose first name cannot be released for cultural reasons, was "unnecessary and avoidable".

Mr Hope criticised the company that owned the van and transported Mr Ward on a 360km journey between the Goldfields towns of Laverton and Kalgoorlie, and accused its custodial guards of colluding in their evidence.

He found the company, Global Solutions Ltd (GSL), the two guards, Nina Stokoe and Graham Powell, and the Department of Corrective Services had all contributed to Mr Ward's "terrible death" on January 27 last year.

The coroner found the father of four, from the Goldfields town of Warburton, died of heatstroke when he succumbed to temperatures of 50 degrees celsius inside the van on a searing day.

The court was told that after being picked up for drink-driving the day before, Mr Ward was transported in a van whose prisoner's compartment had no air-conditioning and little air flow.

Mr Hope said Ms Stokoe and Mr Powell, who provided Mr Ward with only a 600ml bottle of water and did not check on him throughout the journey, had breached their duty of care.

He said Mr Ward had no proper method of communicating with the guards, who had colluded on their evidence before being interviewed by police about the death.

The hearing was told that when Mr Ward eventually arrived unconscious at Kalgoorlie hospital, his body was so hot that staff had been unable to cool him down.

Even after an ice bath he had a body temperature of 41.7 degrees.

He had a laceration to his head from falling in the vehicle and a 9cm third degree burn to his stomach from lying on its hot metal floor.

Mr Hope said the department had failed to provide GSL with proper means of transport and that the vehicle was "not fit for humans".

The prison van did not have a spare tyre, indicating GSL's "reckless approach" towards the transport of prisoners, he said.

"In my view, it is a disgrace that a prisoner in the 21st Century, particularly a prisoner who has not been convicted of any crime, was transported for a long distance in high temperatures in this pod," Mr Hope said.

Among his 14 recommendations, he said the State Government must improve its handling of prisoners and review its justice system.

In response, WA Attorney-General Christian Porter said action had already been taken to prevent another "tragic incident" and pledged $3 million and a rollout of 40 new custodial vehicles by December 2010.

"Things have improved substantially and I intend to see they improve further," Mr Porter said.

"But it now falls to this government to repair the system that allowed this quite shocking event to occur."

About 40 protesters demonstrated outside Perth's Central Law Courts, where the coroner delivered his findings.

The Deaths in Custody Watch Committee called for improved human rights for Aboriginal people, while Amnesty International called it "a disgrace that a prisoner should be transported in this way in the 21st century".

Aboriginal Legal Services of WA CEO Dennis Eggington said Mr Ward's family was happy with the recommendations but wanted criminal charges laid against the government.

Justice for Mr Ward!

Indigenous Social Justice Association (ISJA)
Chris Slee | 16 August 2009

Melbourne — Forty people attended a meeting organised by the Indigenous Social Justice Association (ISJA) on August 12 to discuss Indigenous deaths in custody. In particular, the meeting discussed the case of Aboriginal elder Mr Ward, who died of heat stress in the back of a prisoner transport vehicle in Western Australia.

Davie Thomason, a union activist related to Ward, spoke of the support the family had received from the union movement.

ISJA's Alison Thorne called on the audience to "get out on the streets and build a mass movement", demanding criminal charges be brought against those responsible for Ward's death, an end to the privatisation of prisons and prisoner transport, and the maximum possible use of alternatives to imprisonment and long distance prisoner transport.

Chandra Dev Singh, a campaigner for the recommendations from the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody report to be implemented, also spoke.

UN briefed on prison van death | 21st August 2009

Mr Ward died of heatstroke in the back of this prison van.

The United Nations has been briefed on the death of an Aboriginal man in the back of a prison van in Western Australia's Goldfields.

The Warburton elder died from heatstroke after being transported from Laverton to Kalgoorlie in January last year.

The Deaths in Custody Watch Committee's chairman, Marc Newhouse, met the UN's Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous People, James Anaya, this week.

Mr Newhouse says he will be keeping in regular contact with Professor Anaya.

"Many people have spoken to him already, including Daisy Ward, who also met with him as well," he said.

"His main question was what has been the Government response to date? Our view, as well as some of the family members, is that it's taken a very long time."

He says the committee will keep in regular contact.

"We presented him with a submission on the circumstances around Mr Ward's death, and we have also established communication links so that we will be keeping them informed about the Government's response."

Mr Ward's family has asked the media not to use his first name.