Racism kills: Demand justice for Mr Ward

"I would have been concerned if it was a dog or some other animal who died in those conditions, but since it was only a black-fella …"

This was one comment was made to a campaigner for Aboriginal rights in a discussion of the case of Mr Ward — an Aboriginal elder killed in custody in 2008.

The anecdote was reported to the June 17 meeting of the Deaths in Custody Watch Committee/Justice for Ward campaign. It reveals the level of racism that still exists in sections of Australian society — the same kind racism responsible for Ward's death in the first place.

Ward's case is particularly shocking because he was literally cooked to death during a four-hour journey in the back of a prison transport van on a 42ºC day.

The van compartment was metal. It had neither ventilation nor functioning air conditioning. It's estimated the surface temperatures inside the van would have reached up to 56ºC.

An alternative, yet still secure compartment in the vehicle was available. Yet custodial staff did not place him in it, citing company policy as justification. The staff did not make any check on Ward, or offer a comfort stop during the journey.

There were multiple problems with the so-called bail hearing that led to Ward being taken on the four hour journey from Laverton (957 kilometres north-east of Perth) to Kalgoorlie.

Barrye Thompson, the Justice of the Peace who conducted the bail hearing, had not attended the relevant training and was not aware of his responsibilities.

Police had made two presentations about the case to Thompson without Ward being present. Ward was therefore unable to challenge the police statements — a violation of his right to natural justice.

Most importantly, the bail hearing was held without proper authorisation and in violation of several points of the legislation.

The report by coroner Alastair Hope stated: "a question arises as to whether or not the deceased was lawfully in custody at the time of his death."

Police ordered the transport van the day before the supposed bail hearing took place. In the words of the coroner's report, "it would appear to have been taken for granted that the deceased would not be granted bail".

Racism

This fact is one of several that raise the question of racism. It is difficult to conclude that a white person in the same circumstances would face the same treatment (being held in custody overnight then transported in a sub-standard van for four hours) for a mere traffic violation (drink driving).

Ward had considerable community connections in his home town of Warburton and was a respected elder. Thompson told the coroner that he knew nothing of these connections.

When asked about the same matter by ABC's Four Corners, he said "No. No. He was an Aboriginal in a very drunken state or very groggy state. That's all I knew him as."

This is only one of several instances in which naked racism was revealed by the Four Corners report.

Regarding the vehicle in which Ward was transported, the coroner said "in my view any reasonably compassionate person who viewed the prisoner pod in which the deceased was transported would be shocked by its appearance".

The coroner wrote: "In my view it is a disgrace that a prisoner in the 21st century, particularly a prisoner who had not been convicted of any crime, was transported for a long distance in high temperatures in this pod."

Further: "The photographs taken of the pod do not adequately depict its appearance and make it appear larger, brighter and less unpleasant than it was on inspection by the court."

Clearly, it was racist prejudice from many of the people involved that contributed to this outrage.

This racism comes on top of a general prejudice against prisoners, and a disregard for their human rights.

Privatisation

Another factor that contributed to this outrage was the fact that the "custodial services" were provided by the private corporation Global Solutions Limited — now known as G4S.

On June 15 — 17 months after the event — G4S sacked the two officers who transported Ward. However, they were still using the same fleet of aged prisoner transport vehicles that were the subject of damning reports by the inspector of custodial services in 2001 and then again in 2007.

The 2001 report contained a quote from a prison officer that "the vehicles are not fit for humans to be transported in — we are just waiting for a death to happen".

Despite this, G4S is trying to shift all the blame on to the individual employees alone.

The June 19 Australian reported that "[G4S director of public affairs Tim] Hall said while the company accepted it had failed in its duty of care, it was the two officers who were responsible for Ward's death".

By contrast, the coroner found that G4S and the Department of Corrective Services, as well as the two prison officers, had all contributed to his death.

While the two officers should be held responsible for their negligence, the big fish in the department and G4S should not be let off the hook for their parts in this crime. In particular, all privatisation of prisons and prisoner transport must be halted and reversed.

Furthermore, the government should immediately implement the recommendations of the 1991 Royal Commission into Black Deaths in Custody to ensure such tragedies never happen again.