One lesson of an awful death: no to prison privatisation!

In January 2008, in Western Australia, Aboriginal elder, highly respected community leader and grandfather Mr Ward died of heatstroke in an oven-hot prison van driven by employees of prisons operator Global Solutions Ltd, now taken over by Group 4 Securitas (G4S).

In New South Wales in June 2009, G4S, which also runs all immigration detention centres in Australia and on Christmas Island for the immigration department, is lining up to bid for the contract to run Parklea prison, marked for privatisation by the Labor government of Nathan Rees.

Parklea prison officers and their supporters have been maintaining a protest picket against the privatisation outside Rees's electoral office in the western Sydney suburb of Seven Hills.

At its recently concluded inquiry into prison privatisation, a NSW Legislative Council standing committee heard from Gary Sturgess, cabinet secretary to the Griener Liberal government in the early 1990s. Sturgess, now the executive director of the Serco Institute, a private prisons operator, told the committee that the threat of financial penalties by governments ensures a quality service from private prison operators.

Sturgess also painted prison privatisation as an invaluable opportunity to introduce long-needed prison reform, to "press the reset button and make a 'fresh start' with a service that is performing badly or just coasting".

Tell that to the ghost of Ward and to his devastated family and community. The privatisation of prisons and detention centres has been taking a dreadful toll on inmates, particularly Aboriginal people and refugees. And, despite slap-on-the-wrist fines, companies like GSL continue to profit from their misery.

On January 13, 2004, a 62-year-old Iranian immigration detainee who was being held in Sydney's Villawood detention centre died, after being to the St Georges Private Hospital two days earlier. He was not a refugee.

He had been found guilty of drug-related offences and had served his sentence in prison. The immigration department then ordered his deportation on "character grounds". But when he was found to be unfit to fly, he was sent to Villawood rather than a hospital.

Villawood detainees reported that each day he had to walk uphill to the dining room. He used an umbrella for support and was often too exhausted to eat. When he was finally taken to hospital, he collapsed and died two days later from a heart attack.

On September 17-18, 2004 a GSL van transferred five detainees from Maribyrnong to Baxter detention centre, locked up with inadequate food, water, exercise and toilet facilities, and in searing heat. GSL ignored the detainees' complaints about their ordeal, and it was not until it reached the Ombudsman and Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission that a full inquiry was conducted and compensation finally paid.

In June 2007, WA custodial services inspector Richard Harding wrote to GSL, questioning whether the company had the "capacity to cope with the logistical challenge of running a transport service across such huge distances as are involved in Western Australia".

Harding also warned about the "parlous state" of the fleet of state-owned transfer vans, which were continually breaking down, leaving prisoners stranded in dangerously hot conditions in remote areas. Harding's 2001 report warned the government and GSL of the dangerous state of the fleet services, but nothing was done about it.

An excerpt from the report, noted on the June 15 Four Corners report on the Ward case, said: "We are just waiting for a death to happen." And happen it did — the dire prediction came true for Ward. Since his death, 60 faults have been noted in the fleet service, highlighting bureaucratic indifference and inertia.

After Ward's death, Harding rightly said the state's appalling prisoner transport system would probably not be tolerated if 95% of prisoners were white instead of Aboriginal. He said on Four Corners: "if you could prosecute a bureaucracy ... if there were something called bureaucratic manslaughter, the Department of Corrective Services would certainly be prima facie guilty of that." _

Similarly, the coroner's report found GSL, the individual transport officers and the corrective services department all negligent.

This all points to a system in which everyone but no one is responsible and in which privatisation has only worsened existing and deeply entrenched systemic racism within prison and judicial services and practices.

In 2005, GSL was fined almost $500,000 for its abuse of immigration detainees. In 2006, GSL was fined a reported $200,000 after guards at Port Phillip Prison in Victoria strip-searched a prisoner as part of a "prank".

So much for Sturgess's self-serving claims that prison privatisation boosts the chances of prison reform.

The alternative to the government-run prison system, administered in NSW in military-autocratic style by commissioner Rod Woodham, lies not in contracting out management to privateers. It lies in changing the underlying goals of the system and its management culture.

Indeed, the basis for serious prison reform starts with prison officers, prisoners and concerned citizens strengthening the alliance to stop prison privatisation. For example, the increasing collaboration between the prison officers who saved Cessnock jail from privatisation and the NSW prisoners' rights organisation Justice Action is showing the way forward.

This is the only alternative both to "prisons-for-profit" as well as to the convict colony traditions of most state corrective services departments and the appalling heritage of Aboriginal deaths in custody to which they have contributed.

Ward's tragic and avoidable death must reinforce that message and strengthen our commitment to kill off prison privatisation as the first step in the struggle for serious and sustained prison reform.

[Sanna Andrew is active in the Western Australian Aboriginal Rights Coalition. Dick Nichols is a national co-convener of the Socialist Alliance and active in the Sydney Power to the People anti-privatisation alliance.]