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Issue #1501      18 May 2011

Justice arrives belatedly in prison van death case

A Worksafe prosecution in the Perth Magistrates Courts has attracted pleas of guilty from the principal parties in the death of Aboriginal elder Mr Ward in January 2008. This follows a number of enquiries and an extensive though not exhaustive coronial inquest determined that actions by the Department of Corrections and the private prison operator G4S (then AIMS) contributed to this tragic and avoidable incident.

Members of Mr Ward’s family.

The Department of Corrective Services and the contractor G4S have pleaded guilty to failing to ensure a person in its care was not exposed to hazards – in this case the breakdown of the air conditioning in the prison transport van which caused Mr Ward to die from heat stroke as he was being transported from Laverton to Kalgoorlie.

The offending organisations will be sentenced in regard to their pleas and submissions as to penalty later this month.

In the meantime the Deaths in Custody Watch Committee Deputy Chairman Marc Newhouse said that the Director of Public Prosecutions needed to act.

Newhouse said, “Criminal charges should be laid and the matter determined by a court as to the criminal culpability as to the actions of the individuals and corporations involved”. This includes the Department of Corrective Services who managed the contract for the transport of prisoners within the WA prison system.

In a separate but related matter, the government later the same day released details of the successful tender for the contract of prison services which many people in the community hoped would be returned in house and run by the public service where there would be greater transparency and accountability.

The decision by the government to replace the G4S with another private contractor, SERCO, has angered many sectors of the community including prison officers, refugee rights groups, Deaths in Custody Watch Committee members and Unions WA, United Voice and the Community and Public Sector Union/Civil Service Association.

The government has retained the services of G4S to run the court security services at the Perth Magistrates Courts and the Perth District Building as these are the subject of another nod to capitalism, a Public Private Partnership with Western Liberty Group. Court security for the remaining metropolitan and regional courts will be run by SERCO.

Refugee Rights and human rights groups in particular have been critical of SERCO which runs all 24 immigration detention centres in Australia, including the notorious Christmas Island facility, Villawood, Curtin in the Kimberley region of WA and Laverton in the northeast Goldfields where Mr Ward began his ill fated journey which led to his death in custody.

The union which covers most workers in public hospitals in WA has its own concerns with SERCO which the WA Liberal government of Colin Barnett would like to have run 31 services at the new Fiona Stanley Hospital in Perth’s southern suburbs.

Like prison transport services, private prisons and court security, once the Fiona Stanley Hospital is operating like a private corporation instead of a public service, it will be run with the purpose of making a profit. This means cutting costs including workers wages and rationalising services so that money making is optimised over the needs of people’s health.

The same is set to occur with prison transport and court security if the performance of privately run prisons such as Acacia which is run by SERCO is any guide. Concerns have already been expressed by Deaths in Custody Watch Committee. Marc Newhouse says that a proposal by the government to privatise parole services could see an increased running of the justice system by corporations and non-government organisations.

The work of the Inspector of Custodial Services will certainly be on the increase and it is hoped that resources will be matched to this important watchdog to ensure that prisoner rights are maintained as well as their obligation to rehabilitate people back into the community.

As we have seen with the death of Mr Ward and the admission by the state that it failed in its duty of care to him, are we going to see an improvement in outcomes in the transport, care and rehabilitation of prisoners? Or are we going to see the logic of capital increasingly pervade the way our prisons are run and profits put ahead of the care of prisoners and asylum seekers detained in custody?  

Next article – Asylum seeker struggle takes a bitter turn

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