On June 20, coinciding with national mobilisations against the NT Intervention, more than 1000 people marched in Perth demanding justice for Mr Ward, an Aboriginal leader from the remote community of Warburton in WA.
Mr Ward died in the back of a van on January 27 2008, while in the custody of the GSL private prison company on a four-hour journey from Laverton to Kalgoorlie.
His pod had no air-conditioning and guards failed to check on his welfare, despite temperatures that day exceeding 50 degrees. He was found dead with severe third-degree burns on the metal floor of the pod.
Coroner Hope, in the findings of his inquest into the death said, “a question which is raised by the case is how a society which would like to think of itself as being civilized, could allow a human being to be transported in such circumstances”.
Hope’s findings reveal a racism deeply institutionalised in the justice system.
Mr Ward should never have been in custody. Picked up by for drink-driving, he was held illegally by police, making arbitrary assumptions about prior convictions. Mr Ward was denied bail and sent to Kalgoorlie after a “hearing” illegally convened in his cell.
The findings were handed down as two other deaths in custody inquiries opened.
One was in the NT, where a 22 year old man from Bulman had committed suicide after escaping police custody. He was arrested by police installed in the community by the NT Intervention. They were pursuing child-sex charges against the man for a loving relationship with his 15-year-old girlfriend.
On Palm Island, a new inquiry into the 2004 death in custody of Mulrunji Doomadgee was ordered by the Supreme Court, following an appeal by Senior Sargent Hurley, who had been found responsible for the death.
Horrific deaths in custody flow from escalating rates of incarceration. A report by the National Indigenous Drug and Alcohol Committee released in July found that “one in four prisoners in Australia is Indigenous and their over representation in the jail system is only getting worse”. Indigenous people make up only 2 per cent of Australia’s population.
Incarceration of Aboriginal men in Australia happens at five times the rate of black men in South Africa under Apartheid. In the NT, 83 per cent of prisoners are Aboriginal.
Racist government policy and punitive controls are directly responsible for the carnage. Since the NT Intervention, incarceration rates have increased more than 10 per cent. This year’s federal budget slashed funding to Aboriginal legal aid services. In WA, Aboriginal Legal Service lawyers, currently forced to see more than 50 clients a day, are threatening to walk off the job.
By Paddy Gibson