Deaths in custody expose racism in WA 'justice' system

“Aboriginal people are treated worse than second class citizens”, Paul Haywood told a rally in Perth on March 17. Haywood, whose brother Deon Woods died in the Perth watch-house on March 14, told protesters, “Deon’s son is here today. Now he hasn’t got a father. I haven’t got a brother. My mother has lost her son and my sister in law has lost her man.”

Woods, a 33 year old diabetic, was found unconscious in his cell in the Perth watch-house, where he had been incarcerated overnight. He was transported by ambulance to hospital, where he was pronounced dead on arrival at 11:30pm. Less than a week later, on March 22, a second Aboriginal man died in police custody in Perth. Grantley Winmar, a 39-year-old inmate at Acacia Prison, died in Sir Charles Gardner Hospital. Winmar’s brother Richard Winmar told the West Australian that the family wanted answers after they were told by doctors there had been bleeding on his brain for six to seven days while he was in jail. Winmar, who had suffered two strokes and been diagnosed with meningitis, had only three weeks left of a six-month jail term he received for driving without a licence, when he died.

These deaths in custody come at a time when the Western Australian state government is under increased pressure from supporters of Aboriginal rights over the death of Warburton elder Ian Ward while being transported in a privately run prison van in searing heat on January 27, 2008. A rally organised by the Deaths in Custody Watch Committee (DICWC) on March 17 demanded compensation for the Ward family, termination of the WA state government’s prisoner transport contract with Group 4 Securitas (G4S) company; and prosecution of those responsible for Ward’s death.

He died during a four-hour trip in an un-air conditioned van on a 42oC day between Laverton and Kalgoorlie. Ward had been arrested for a traffic violation. Last year, the coroner found that the state government prisons department, the private contractor GSL (now G4S) and the two prison van drivers were all responsible for his death.

Australian Legal Service spokesperson John Bedford, told the rally that the ALS had written to the government repeatedly since July calling for an ex-gratia payment and, since January, for an interim payment, but that the government had failed to respond. “We will not go away. Like the Deaths in Custody Watch committee and others who support us, we will continue to seek justice”, he told the rally.

ALP shadow attorney-general John Quigley has publicly campaigned for an overall ex-gratia compensation payment in excess of $3.2 million. This was the amount paid by the state government to Andrew Mallard after he was wrongly jailed for 12 years for a murder he didn’t commit. Quigley told the rally that, on November 5, 2009, the government had fined G4S $100,000 for its breach of contract in relation to Ward’s death, but to date the family had not received a cent of the money. “There’s no reason why [Mr Porter] can’t make an immediate interim payment given his agency has already pocketed $100,000 over Mr Ward’s death”, Quigley told protesters.

On the afternoon of the rally, WA attorney-general Christian Porter hastily announced an interim payment of $200,000 to Ward’s widow. Announcing state cabinet’s approval of the interim, ex-gratia payment on March 22, WA Premier Colin Barnett told the West Australian: “So far, 16 of 40 [prisoner transport] vehicles have been replaced and this government is on track to replace all of the vehicles by the end of the year.” However, on March 12, more than two years after Ward’s death, another prisoner, 46-year-old David Yarran, collapsed from heat exhaustion in 41oC heat in the back of a prison van similar to the one in which Mr Ward had died. Yarran was being transported from a family funeral at Fremantle cemetery to Casuarina prison by prison guards.

WA equal opportunity commissioner Yvonne Henderson told the National Symposium on Racism, at Murdoch University on March 20, that while the US had the reputation of imprisoning the highest percentage of its citizens, WA’s rate of imprisoning one in 15 Aboriginal men equalled the rate of adult black men jailed in the US. She said that one in 160 Aboriginal women were imprisoned in WA each year while in the US the rate was one in 203 black women jailed.

Henderson added that Aboriginal adults were 25 times more likely to be imprisoned in WA than non-Aboriginal adults, and that while Aborigines made up just 3% of WA’s total population, 75-80% of juveniles imprisoned in WA were Aborigines. According to an article in the November 16 Melbourne Age, Aborigines aged between 10 and 17 are 45 times more likely than non-Aboriginal youth to go to jail in WA.

An example of the racist targeting by police of Aboriginal youth was the arrest of a 12-year-old Aboriginal boy on his way to school in Northam, an hour east of Perth, on November 16. He was detained for several hours before facing court on two charges of receiving stolen goods. The police alleged that the boy had received a chocolate Freddo Frog, worth 70 cents, and a novelty sign, worth $4, from a friend. The supermarket that had reported the theft, did not ask police to prosecute the boy. Barnett defended the police action, telling local ABC radio, “Maybe the police were making a statement to him.” The police dropped the charges the following day, after a public outcry.

According to the Australian Institute of Criminology, seven out of 10 white juvenile offenders are dealt with by a way of a caution, while police hand out cautions to only three out of 10 Aboriginal juvenile offenders. In the July 9 National Indigenous Times, editor Chris Graham observed that the incarceration rate of black males in South Africa at the end of the apartheid era, in 1993, was 851 per 100,000 population. In Australia today, Aboriginal males are jailed at a national rate of 4364 per 100,000, or five times the rate in apartheid South Africa. In Western Australia the rate is more than eight times higher.

The $100,000 fine meted out to G4S for its culpability in Ward’s death is a mere slap on the wrist to one of the world’s most powerful prison corporations. According to its website, G4S employs over 500,000 personnel in more than 100 countries. While the termination of the G4S prisoner transport contract by the WA government would be a welcome move, the “justice” system as a whole has to date protected every one of the (mostly state employed) police officers and prison guards responsible for hundreds of deaths in custody since the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.