I would like my children and my people to maintain their cultural values: the law, the connection to the land. They know they are a part of Australia, but the most important thing for them is their cultural values. There should be recognition on the part of Australia at large of that value. We have two worlds that people here live in: the traditional way and the Australian citizen way. I want my children also to live in those two worlds.
Mr Ward, interview in The Weekend Australian, 2006
Mr Ward, aged 46, from Warburton, was a well-respected and hard-working member of the community, father of five and community elder who had a very strong knowledge of traditional law and culture. Mr Ward passed away on 27 January 2008 after being transported in the back of a prison van in 40+ degree heat. Staff at the Kalgoorlie District Hospital could not revive him and he died of heatstroke.
The state coroner held an inquest into his death in police custody in March and May 2009 and made an open finding. The coroner concluded that all parties involved had contributed to Mr Ward’s death but was precluded by the Coroners Act from making a finding of unlawful homicide or misadventure.
The Coroner recommended that the Department of Public Prosecutions pursue charges. The DPP declined to. Subsequently, WorkSafe, with pressure from the Deaths in Custody Watch Committee, began its own investigation. In January 2011, WorkSafe charged G4S with failing to ensure the health and safety of Mr Ward.
A question which is raised by the case is how a society, which would like to think of itself as being civilised, could allow a human being to be transported in such circumstances.
Alistair Hope, coroner for the inquest into the death in custody of Mr Ward
On the evening of 26 January 2008, Mr Ward was arrested in Laverton in Western Australia for driving offences. He was taken to Laverton Police Station where he was refused bail by a Justice of the Peace over the telephone. He was kept in custody in the lockup overnight.
The next day at 11.30am Mr Ward was transferred into the custody of GSL guards, who were tasked with transporting him to the Eastern Goldfields Regional Prison (to be held on remand until his court hearing), 360 kilometres away. The journey would take four hours and outside temperatures were in the mid-40s. The air-conditioning in the rear of the van was not working.
The air temperature in the back of the prison van could have been more than 50 degrees Celsius. A re-enactment of the incident during the inquest into his death found that the air temperature in the back of the van reached 50.4C and surface temperature of the metal floor peaked at 56.6C. Mr Ward suffered third-degree burns when his skin came into contact with the hot metal surface in the back of the van. Mr Ward had a body temperature of 41.7C. Despite attempts by staff at Kalgoorlie Hospital to cool him with ice and water for 20 minutes on arrival, they failed to revive him.
GSL staff had expressed concerns about the condition of the van used to transport Mr Ward. Leanne Jenkins, the Kalgoorlie-Boulder site supervisor for GSL, told the court she had warned her superiors just four months before Mr Ward's death that someone would "eventually die" if the company’s outdated and poorly maintained vans were not replaced. Jenkins said the only response she received was that any vehicles in need of repairs should not be driven. She said the two vans based at Kalgoorlie always had problems and were not suitable for long trips. GSL had raised concerns with the state government about the poor state of the vans. In addition, the vehicle used to transport Mr Ward had no first aid kit or spare tyre and the security camera in the back was faulty.
The transport guards failed to obey instructions to provide water and routine checks. A GSL supervisor testified that the guards Graham Kenneth Powell and Nina Mary Stokoe should have done a routine stop to check on Mr Ward. Stokoe also said they should have provided him with water. She told the court those breaches could have contributed to Mr Ward's death. Powell had previously been stood down by GSL for six months a year before the incident for breaching company procedures.
In the days following Mr Ward’s death, two separate internal reports by GSL management, given to the state government, concluded Mr Ward had died of a heart attack and stroke. This was before any official cause of death had been released.
Under the terms of GSL’s contract with the WA Department of Corrective Services, the company could be fined $100,000 if found by the coroner to have failed in its duty of care. GSL was contracted by the WA government to provide prisoner transport services and by the federal government to run immigration detention camps and transport immigration detainees and prisoners. GSL was controversially awarded the $70 million prisoner transport, court custody and security services contract in WA in 2007 when it bought out the previous contractor, Australian Integrated Management Service (AIM), after a series of incidents related to its services.
Letters obtained under Freedom of Information laws revealed the Inspector for Custodial Services, Richard Harding, had told Corrective Services Minister Margaret Quirk in April (2007) that the plan for GSL to take over the contract was unwise and risky. Despite his advice, Cabinet not only approved the takeover of the contract in July, but days later it extended the deal by three years without any public tender process.
Harding wrote to GSL in 2007 outlining six concerns, including “GSL’s capacity to cope with the logistical challenge of running a transport service across such huge distances as are involved with Western Australia”. Harding also “stressed I wasn’t happy that the Department had adequately briefed them on how bad the vehicle fleet was, how much it was in need of replacement, and I warned them that they should get an undertaking from the department to replace the fleet”. Harding said Mr Ward’s death was an unnecessary result of continual neglect of Aboriginal prisoners in WA. “What this case highlights is [that] the conditions under which we imprison and transport Aboriginals in regional areas is simply not acceptable,” he said.
A 2005 federal government inquiry found GSL had failed to provide medical assessments and treatments for injured detainees who were being transferred to the Baxter detention centre in South Australia from Maribyrnong in 2004. The probe found the van used to transport detainees was “unsafe and inhumane” with air-conditioning design faults.
In 2009, state coroner Alastair Hope found the Department of Corrective Services, G4S and the two former guards on duty for the transfer had contributed to Mr Ward’s death. The state government gave Mr Ward’s widow and his four children a $3.2 million ex gratia payment in 2010.
In June 2015, Mr Ward’s family reached a confidential out-of-court settlement with G4S (GSL) in their long-running legal action against the private custody transport company.
The Deaths in Custody Watch Committee coordinated a multifaceted campaign around Mr Ward’s death in custody, with the aim of bringing about lasting change to the Western Australian justice system and custodial services. The campaigned achieved huge public support and saw one of the largest rallies to take place in Perth, raising awareness of the issues around prisoner transport. The result was significant changes to the transport of prisoners from road to air, at great cost to the Department of Corrective Services and the State Government of Western Australia.
The state government was ultimately held to account and we thank the people of Australia who joined or supported the campaign in some way. It could not have been achieved without you.
Rallies and events in the Mr Ward campaign
3 April 2009 rally
20 June 2009 rally after the coroner’s findings were released on 12 June. Over 1,500 people marched through Perth city centre.
16 September 2009 rally at WA Parliament House and tabling of petition. Bill introduced this day to enact some of the coroner’s recommendations.
19 October 2009 rally at Parliament House, Canberra, with representatives of DICWC tabling the 3500-signature national petition.
17 March 2010, WA Parliament House, calling for compensation to be paid to the family of Mr Ward immediately and for an end to the G4S contract.
11 July 2010 rally at the Supreme Court Gardens in Perth, after the DPP decision not to lay charges
22 March 2011 rally, WA Parliament House
Read the Special Report of a Working Party of the Deaths in Custody Watch Committee submitted to the WA Attorney-General in September 2009, The Ward Case and Lessons for the WA Government: A System Wide Dysfunction Requires a System Wide Approach