A February 22 meeting between Western Australian prisons minister Margaret Quirk, Aboriginal Legal Service chief executive Dennis Eggington and WA Deaths in Custody Watch Committee chairperson Marc Newhouse resulted in some ministerial promises of reforms following the the death in custody of an Aboriginal elder on January 27.
The elder, from the desert town of Warburton, died after collapsing in the back of a prison van while being transported for four hours in 43oC heat to a jail in the outback city of Kalgoorlie. He had been arrested on January 26 for alleged drink-driving while visiting relatives in the remote town of Laverton, 352 kilometres north of Kalgoorie.
The van was driven and staffed by employees of Global Solutions Ltd, an Anglo-French prison management company, which the WA government has contracted to transport prisoners.
Professor Richard Harding, the WA government's inspector of custodial services, told the news media on January 29 that he was not surprised at the Warburton elder's death, given the state of the prisoner transport fleet. He said that the "government-owned vans are continually breaking down, leaving prisoners stranded in searingly hot conditions in remote areas".
Among other things, Quirk has agreed to overhaul procedures followed when a prisoner is transported. New procedures, to be in place by March 14, will include a health assessment and provision of water and food.
Newhouse told Green Left Weekly that "there have been some steps forward, but a lot of unanswered questions. We have to keep the pressure on the government."
After NSW, WA has the highest rate of Aboriginal prisoner deaths from apparent unnatural causes — about six deaths for every 10,000 prisoners. The national rate is five in 10,000 prisoners.
Eggington told Green Left Weekly that "there is no excuse for Aboriginal people dying in the back of a lock-up. It's more than time for the full implementation" of the recommendations of the 1987-1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.