UN asks Australia about Aboriginal custody death

The West Australian has revealed the UN is seeking information about how an Aboriginal elder died from heatstroke in a prison van in remote WA last year. The UN representative on Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment and Punishment is seeking information on the death of “Ribs” Ward, who collapsed while being taken 360km from Laverton to Kalgoorlie in 42C heat in January 2008 to face drink driving charges. The UN made the enquiry to the Australian federal government last September. The WA Corrective Services department told the paper yesterday Canberra had passed on the enquiry to the WA Government.

The 46-year-old Ward (his family does not want his first name published for cultural reasons) was a resident of Warburton, 1,500km northeast of Perth. He was an interpreter for local police, an advocate and educator for children of the Gibson Desert, and an international ambassador for the Ngaanyatjarra peoples. He called himself “professor of the bush”. On Australia Day, 26 January 2008, Ward was drinking heavily in Laverton. Police stopped him in a random traffic check and arrested him for drink-driving after he blew 0.22 (four times the blood alcohol legal limit). He was put in the Laverton lock-up for the night.Police gave the job of transporting him for trial in Kalgoorlie to a British private contracting firm, Global Solutions Ltd (GSL). GSL (which has recently changed its name to G4S) is profiting from increasing privatisation of prison services in Britain, South Africa and Australia. In 2004 the company was fined $500,000 for its mistreatment of asylum-seekers when they transported five detainees from Melbourne to Baxter Immigration Facility in remote South Australia.

In WA, GSL has a $25 million contract until October for court security and transporting prisoners across the state using Corrective Services facilities. GSL was forced transport Ward in the back of a defective police van through the desert in mid-summer. For four hours, the journey passed by with no air conditioning, no checks for well-being and with only one 600ml bottle of water. The air temperature in the back of the van reached 50C and Ward was slowly cooked to death. In Kalgoorlie, the man was found dead with third-degree burns on his abdomen from contact with the hot metal floor.

The inquest in March 2009 showed incompetence was rife in GSL and the Corrective Services Department. GSL officers in Kalgoorlie complained about the poor state of the vehicles but did not get a replacement until after Ward’s death. The replacement vehicle was also substandard. GSL failed to ensure staff were trained to look after prisoners properly. The two guards that drove Ward to his death testified there were no procedures on how many breaks prisoners should have on a journey, how much food and water they should be given, or if the air-conditioning should be checked. A senior GSL employee accused the two of lying and said they had not followed company procedures they were both knew.

Despite this GSL did not sack either driver. Freelance journalist Michael Winkler spoke to Ward’s cousin Daisy Ward after the inquest who was stunned to hear the pair were still driving prisoners. “They (GSL) should be really ashamed of themselves,” she said. “What is this company doing to us families? What are they thinking when we have tears in our eyes listening to everything said about my cousin? Were they ashamed of themselves for what they did? Or what?”

At a community meeting after the inquest, the Aboriginal Deaths in Custody Watch Committee organised a rally this month to protest Ward’s shameful treatment. Noongar elder Ben Taylor-Ciuermara contrasted the media-manufactured outrage over the March 12 acquittal of three men accused of assaulting police, with the disregard paid by the media and politicians to the deaths in custody of Aboriginal people.

Indigenous people are 2 percent of the population of Australia and are among the country’s lowest income earners. They are not treated as a mainstream media audience worth cultivating. As Aboriginal journalist Kerry Klimm said yesterday, “we don’t rank in the ratings”.

Here’s hoping the UN shames WA into action. My thanks to Lauredhel’s post at Hoyden About Town for alerting me to this story.

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