WA coroner slams Indigenous death in custody

By Virginia Brown

A “disgrace” and custody conditions “not fit for humans” were among the June 12 findings of Western Australian state coroner Alistair Hope on the January 27, 2008, death of 46-year-old Warburton Aboriginal elder Ian Ward. Ward’s death in the custody of a company contracted by the state government has shed further light on the racism surrounding Australia’s justice system, and the failure of successive federal and state governments to implement the recommendations of the 1987-91 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

One of the last nomads born in the Gibson Desert, Ward was stopped on the outskirts of Laverton on January 26, 2008, for a random breath test. Arrested and charged with driving under the influence of alcohol, he spent the night in the local lockup. The inquest heard evidence from Aboriginal Legal Service counsel Lachlan Carter that Ward’s hearing with a justice of the peace (JP) the next day was a “sham”. Hope found that “multiple breaches of the legislation” occurred in order for the elder’s subsequent transfer to ensue.

Before contacting the local JP, police called private security company Global Solutions Limited (GSL) to arrange for the elder to be taken to the Eastern Goldfields Regional Prison in Kalgoorlie-Boulder. The JP, Barrye Thompson, stood outside elder’s cell and, just after he had woken up, told him that bail would not be granted. In a Four Corners program on Ward’s death, Thompson said he was unaware of Ward’s respect within his community: “He was an Aboriginal in a very drunken state or a very groggy state. That’s all I knew him as.”

Cooked to death

The four-hour, 360km journey from Laverton was undertaken in a run-down Corrective Services van that the guards and GSL knew had trouble starting, had a faulty CCTV monitor and no spare tyre or first-aid kit and had faulty airconditioning as the sole source of ventilation in the van’s rear compartment, a cell of metallic surfaces.

After giving Ward water at the start of the journey, the guards transporting him, Graham Powell and Nina Stokoe, offered him no subsequent drink or toilet breaks, and did not check on him except through the poorly functioning CCTV. The guards testified that shortly before the journey’s completion, they heard a “thump” in the back of the van and found Ward unconscious, with only a faint pulse. They took him to Kalgoorlie Regional Hospital, where staff spent 90 minutes trying to revive him. Even after placing him in an ice-bath with a fan, Ward’s temperature was 41.7˚C. The autopsy found that Ward had essentially cooked to death.

Forensic pathologist Gerald Cadden testified that Ward had been placed in a dangerous situation from the start of the journey, when he was probably already very dehydrated, due to his high blood alcohol level when arrested. The inquest also heard that in a re-enactment of the incident in similar conditions, temperatures on the metal surfaces inside the secure section reached 56˚ C.

The coronial finding was that the WA Department of Corrective Services (DCS), GSL (which was bought by global security giant G4S PLC in May 2008) and the two guards had all contributed to Ward’s death. GSL could have placed Ward in the forward cell in the van, where he would have had padded seating and a window that he could open. Hope also found that the two guards were given the ability by police to collude in preparing their versions of the events, and did not accept all aspects of their evidence as reliable.

GSL continued employing Stokoe and Powell until the coroner delivered his findings, when they were suspended on full pay. GSL decided to terminate the guards’ contracts, it said, when the commissioner of Corrective Services revoked their security permits.

Substandard vehicles

The multi-million dollar arrangement between DCS and G4S is that the department pays for the fleet operated by G4S, while G4S organises the repairs and invoices the government. The vehicle used to transport Ward was part of a fleet known to the government to be substandard and dangerous. The Aboriginal Legal Service argued in a 2006 submission to the government that the inhumane treatment of transported prisoners and the state of the transport vehicle fleet were unacceptable. Previous and subsequent government reports also warned that breakdowns were “potentially a life-threatening event”. Hope found that the government had failed in its responsibility to provide adequate means of transporting prisoners.

GSL supervisor Leanne Jenkins told the inquest that when DCS officials travelled to Kalgoorlie to review GSL’s services, they had not asked how prisoners were transported or whether GSL was fulfilling its duty of care. Hope found that GSL had no written policies mandating regular staff checks on prisoners, and these were never requested by the government.

The state government was aware of GSL’s poor history. A 2007 Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission inquiry into the transportation of five immigration detainees on September 17, 2004, found that the human rights of the detainees were breached by the Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs and by GSL. Findings included that the detainees suffered degrading treatment during their journey, which included sensory deprivation in a hot compartment, lack of toilet facilities and one detainee being forced to drink his own urine in order to stay hydrated.

Jenkins testified that in the days following Ward’s death, GSL sent two reports on the cause of death to the state government that contradicted the initial reports by Kalgoorlie Regional Hospital.

The terms of GSL’s contract with the DCS provided for a $100,000 fine if GSL were found to have failed in its duty of care. G4S is contracted with the federal government to continue providing “security” at all of Australia’s immigration detention centres until October. It is contracted with the WA government to run prisoner transportation until 2011.

Call for inquiry

Only following Hope’s findings did G4S offer to come to Warburton to apologise to Ward’s family. The family rejected this as “too late”. Ward’s cousin, Daisy Ward, told ABC journalist David Weber on June 13 that the family wants charges to be laid and that the system requires changing so that Aboriginal people are treated as equals, not as animals.

Hope explained that the Coroners Act 1996 prevented him from making findings as to legal guilt. The Department of Public Prosecutions is considering whether to lay charges. State Attorney-General Christian Porter has responded by removing some of the substandard vans from the vehicle fleet, and promising the addition of 40 new custodial vehicles by 2010.

The Deaths in Custody Watch Committee (WA) organised a public rally in Perth on June 20 (attended by more than 1500 people in inclement conditions) in expectation of “strong recommendations from the coroner” but a lack of “confidence that the WA government will fully implement them”. The DICWC (WA) has highlighted the fact that, of the 338 recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody 18 years ago, most remain unimplemented, and that this urgently needs to take place, as does a public inquiry into systemic racism or a royal commission into the administration of justice.

Since the royal commission, the difference between the rates of Indigenous and non-Indigenous imprisonment has not improved; the rate of Indigenous imprisonment is still 13 times higher than the non-Indigenous rate. In 2002, the National Police Custody Survey found that Indigenous people were 17 times more likely to be in police custody than the rest of the population. Nearly 25% of prisoners in Australia are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders though they are 2.3% of the general population. In WA, Indigenous people account for 41% of all prison inmates but only 3.6% of the WA population. And despite Indigenous people accounting for 30% of all deaths in custody nationally in 2006, funding for Aboriginal legal aid has been cut.

The National Deaths in Custody Program data (from 1990 to 2004) show that the average age of Indigenous people dying in prison is 32 years, compared with the non-Indigenous average of 39 years. A 2006 Australian Institute of Criminology paper found that ex-prisoners have a drastically higher mortality rate than the general population. Released Indigenous male prisoners had a mortality rate 72% higher than unincarcerated Indigenous men.

Australian of the Year Mick Dodson, in his Reconciliation Address on June 9, slammed the federal government’s targets for closing the differences in health, life expectancy and conditions for Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. He noted that the “shortest timeframe to achieve any one of these targets is a decade” and that “several of the targets are not about achieving equality, but merely a 50 per cent reduction of … inequality”.