Government should take over prison van services: committee


Originally published in Tracker Magazine.  

A protest for Aboriginal elder Mr Ward in July last year. Mr Ward died in the back of a prison van while being transported from Laverton to Kalgoorlie in January 2008. (AAP IMAGE/JOSH JERGA)

WESTERN AUSTRALIA, April 2011: On the day of Mr Phillips’ funeral, a mourner was brought in a prison vehicle, operated by private security company G4S. This is the same company which is facing civil charges over the death of respected Warburton elder Mr Ward.

He died in the back of a prison van while being transported from Laverton to Kalgoorlie in searing heat in early 2008 to face a bail hearing over a drink driving charge.

The State Coroner later found that a  “litany of errors” by those caring for him had claimed his life. 

G4S, re-named from GLS, still holds the prisoner transport contract throughout Western Australia, and in other sites around the country.

The company transports about 50,000 prisoners each year, racking up 1.4 million kilometres, according to figures from the WA Department of Corrective Services. 

But its presence, particularly in the Goldfields region, has caused distress among many in the Aboriginal community, according to the Deaths in Custody Watch Committee WA.

“Every single time a G4S van is seen in the lands, and Goldfields, it traumatises people,” Marc Newhouse toldTracker

He said the Committee wanted the state government to withdraw G4S from all transport in the eastern Goldfields and the lands.

The group has conducted a long-running campaign seeking government control of prison services, particularly in the wake of Mr Ward’s death.

Mr Newhouse said prison vans had been modified in the wake of Mr. Ward’s death. They had been “basically coffins on wheels.”

However, the Committee still believed government-owned vehicles should be used.

The government, he said, had a clear obligation, to ensure the safety of all prison vehicles.

G4S has held a multi-million dollar contract for prison transport since 2007. 

The current contract is due to expire this year.

The Commissioner of the Department of Corrective Services, Mr. Ian Johnson, recently told a Parliamentary inquiry that G4S had re-applied for the contract.

Deaths in Custody Watch WA believe this is not good enough. It says prison services should not be contracted out. 

The privatisation of prison transport services was questioned by State Coroner, Alastair Pope, in the report of his inquiry into Mr Ward’s death.

“We wonder how many more disasters or tragedies will have to befall us with reference to the provision of prisoner transport services before the government steps in to say that this failed experiment of privatisation should be brought to an end,” his report stated.

Western Australia’s work safety watchdog has announced it is also laying civil charges against the two guards, – Graham Powell and Nina Stokoe –  who escorted Mr Ward, along with the Department of Corrective Services.

They will be charged under the Occupational Health and Safety Act 1984. The Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions decided last year not to press charges against those involved.

It said a prime facie case did not exist and there would be no reasonable prospect of conviction.  Mr Ward’s widow, Nancy Donegan said she was “happy and relieved” at the decision by Worksafe to lay charges.

“I think it is a long time coming,” she said in a statement. 

“It is good for my sons and me, for the Ward families, my in-laws, the Elders in the community, friends and colleagues of my husband – everyone who knew my husband. It will help me and my family deal with the pain a little better.”

Mr Newhouse hopes new evidence will emerge from the Worksafe trial. However, he said there was still a need for criminal charges to brought against those involved.

WA Corrective Services minister Terry Redman did not respond to a series of questions submitted by Tracker.

  TIMELINE: The tragic death of Mr Ward

 • 26 January 2008: Aboriginal elder Mr Ward is arrested for drink driving just outside Laverton. He is refused bail by police, and stays overnight at the Laverton watchhouse.

• 27 January 2008: Mr Ward dies in the back of the prison van, with fourth degree burns on his body.

• 28 May 2009: A coronial inquest wraps up into the death. Coroner Alastair Hope found that the Department of Corrective Services, G4S, and two guards were all responsible for the tragedy, saying Mr Ward’s death was “the direct result of the failure to take adequate care to protect his life”.

• June 2009: State Labor leader Eric Ripper says Mr Ward’s death was one of the “greatest failings” in the eight years the ALP were in power in WA.

• May 2010: The WA government announces that Mr Ward’s family will receive $3.2 million in compensation. That included an interim payment of $200,000 that was offered the previous year.

• June 2010: The Director of Public Prosecutions Joe McGrath announces that he will not press charges over Mr Ward’s death, angering the family and community. The DPP claims that a prima facie case did not exist, and a conviction would be unlikely. Shadow Attorney General John Quigley said the decision was inconceivable, and the Aboriginal Legal Service of WA said it was “flabbergasted” over the lack of charges. 

• January 2011:  After a Worksafe investigation, civil charges are laid against G4S, the prison guards, and the Department of Corrective Services under the Occupational Health and Safety Act 1984.

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