Sunday, January 23, 2011

Partial justice in the wild west: Charges laid against those responsible for Mr Ward's death

"I think it is long time coming. 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.”
The wife of Aboriginal elder Mr Ward
For the widow and family of Aboriginal elder Mr Ward there was some good news this week with the announcement that Worksafe (WA's industrial safety watchdog) will lay charges against those responsible for the death of Mr Ward. Not criminal charges mind you, but charges under Occupational health and safety law.

Three years after Mr Ward died in the back of a searing prison van in the Goldfields, the WA Department of Corrective Services, G4S (the corporation responsible for prison transport) and two of its drivers will finally be charged under the WA Occupational Health and Safety Act. Up to now the only person charged in relation to Mr Ward's death was an Aboriginal man arrested for refusing to follow Police instructions at a public protest against the WA Government's failure to pursue criminal charges against those responsible for Mr Ward's death.

Mr Ward was a distinguished Aboriginal elder and community leader from Warburton in the Ngaanyatjarra Lands who died from heatstroke in January 2008 in the back of a prison van during a 6 hour trip from Laverton to Kalgoorlie to face drink driving charges. Mr Ward was wrongfully in custody at the time as a result of systemic failures in the justice process and was forced to ensure a 6 hour trip under extreme conditions in the back of a prison van run by G4S. The air conditioning in the back of the van was not working and the two drivers failed to check on Mr Ward during the trip. By the time they arrived in Kalgoorlie Mr Ward was dead, essentially cooked to death.

An Inquiry by the WA Coroner into the death concluded that the Department of Corrective Services, G4S and the two drivers had all contributed to the death. However, the WA Government's Director of Public Prosecution decided not to pursue criminal charges against those responsible.

Worksafe has announced that it will lay charges against the Department of Corrective Services for failing to ensure Mr Ward was not exposed to hazards, against G4S for causing Mr Ward's death because of their failure to maintain their van and the two drivers are charged for contributing to Mr Ward's death. All charges carry a penalty of a fine.

If years of cruelty, ineptness, insensitivity and neglect by successive Labor and Liberal Governments on this matter was not enough, the current Attorney General Christian Porter tried to politicize the Worksafe announcement by claiming that he had fixed all the problems in the system and that it was Labor who was responsible, as they were in Government at the time of Mr Ward's death.

It is a deeply insensitive and inappropriate comment. It was his Government that took over 2 years to pay compensation to the Ward family and who refused to pursue criminal charges against any of those responsible. It was Attorney General Porter who rewarded G4S with a continuation of the prison transport contract, primarily because their contract could only be terminated if there were 2 deaths in their care in a 12 month period.

The Attorney General has made all sorts of claims and promises that the justice system and private contractors such as G4S have learned the lessons of the Ward case, a claim that is palpably false. Over the last 12 months there have been numerous deaths in custody including Dion Woods and Grantley Winmar in 2010, the March 2010 incident involving an Aboriginal man who nearly died in the back of a prison van on its way to Casurina prison, and the recent events surrounding the death of an Aboriginal man in custody in the Kalgoorlie lock up (my earlier piece about that death is here). There has also been the shocking incidents involving the use of tasers against Kevin Spratt.

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