On February 13, 50 people attended an angry public meeting at the Derbarl Yerrigan Health Services centre in East Perth. The meeting called for an immediate cessation of transporting prisoners long distances in road vehicles following the death in custody on January 27 of an Aboriginal elder.
The Warburton elder become unconscious while being transported in the back of a van operated by prison management contractor, Global Solutions Limited (GSL). He was in the van for four hours in 40oC temperatures after he'd been arrested for alleged drink driving the previous day. He died shortly after being taken to Kalgoorlie Regional Hospital.
It is understood that the air-conditioning in the prisoner compartment of the van had broken down the previous week. WA custodial services inspector Richard Harding wrote to GSL last year expressing doubt in "GSL's capacity to cope with the logistical challenge of running a transport service across such huge distances as are involved with Western Australia".
WA Deaths in Custody Watch Committee (DCWC) chairperson Marc Newhouse told the public meeting that the current prisoner transport system breached the UN Convention on Torture and Degrading Treatment. He said that the WA government had known of concerns about the reliability and safety of the prisoner transport vehicles used by GSL.
He pointed to an incident described in Harding's May 2007 review of the WA prison transport system in which a prison van, with 14 prisoners in it, broke down on October 17, 2006, three hours into a nine-hour drive on a 40oC day. Despite the break-down, neither air-conditioning or open windows provided on "security" grounds.
Aboriginal Legal Service (ALS) CEO Dennis Eggington said that 95% of prisoners transported long distances by road in WA were Aborigines. He said that numerous recommendations had been made to the government to end this policy, but it would take a public campaign to force action.
The meeting decided to call on the WA Labor government to terminate GSL's contract and to stop the use of vehicles to transport prisoners long distances until the safety of the prisoners could be guaranteed. It raised questions about flying prisoners instead, or magistrates holding teleconference hearings.
WA prisons minister Margaret Quirk was in attendance and agreed to meet with the ALS and the DCWC to take up the questions and recommendations raised by the meeting. Newhouse
said another public meeting on the issue would be held to report back on the outcome of the discussion. A campaign group was formed to organise this, as well as plan a march on parliament to raise public awareness on the issue.