• Aboriginal Elder Mr Ward's death was cruel and wholly unnecessary. (Supplied)Source: Supplied
Third degree burns: Thrown in a prison van for four hours where temperatures reached 56 degrees and left to 'cook' to death. It’s been a decade since the death of Ngaanyatjarra elder, Mr Ward. The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission described his death as 'cruel, inhumane and degrading'.
Rangi Hirini

31 Jan 2018 - 12:02 PM  UPDATED 31 Jan 2018 - 12:15 PM

Australia Day 2008, police pull over a car on the backroads of Laverton in the Goldfields region of Western Australia.   

The driver, Indigenous Elder Mr Ward, was breathalysed and found to be over the limit. He was arrested for drink driving and was taken to Laverton jail.

Mr Ward was refused bail and kept in a cell overnight. The next day he was transported to Kalgoorlie, 360 kilometres away, a four-hour journey by car.

Under a contract with the state government, private security operator Global Solutions Limited (GSL) was responsible for transporting prisoners in regional and remote areas in Western Australia.

“I was in a motel, and then I turned the telly on watching you know and then I could see, and I just looked again and I just couldn’t believe it and then I started crying and I kept crying."

The van transporting Mr Ward left Laverton late morning, approximately 11.30AM on a day with temperatures set to be well over 40 degrees.

Mr Ward was held in the rear of the van, which had no air conditioning or airflow and was covered in metal, from the ceiling to the floor.

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The air temperature inside reached 47 degrees and the metal surface of the seat, floor and walls hit 56 degrees.

The Elder was given one meat pie and a 600mL bottle of water when he left Laverton.

The Ngaanyatjarra man was pronounced dead at 4.30PM. West Australian coroner Alastair Hope found Mr Ward died of heat stroke.  He also suffered third degree burns to his abdomen and, said the coroner, Mr Ward was effectively "cooked" to death.

His death has been described as slow and shockingly painful.

Mr Ward was a well-respected, hardworking man who had represented his people on the international stage.

He was also a part one of the longest traditional living Aboriginal communities.

In the 1960s, as a toddler he appeared in a film about his people.

At the time of his death, Mr Ward’s cousin Daisy Ward became the spokesperson for his family.

In 2011, Ms Ward spoke with NITV’s Living Black about the family’s ordeal.

Mr Ward’s cousin remembers seeing his death on the television and couldn’t believe what she was seeing.

“I was in a motel, and then I turned the telly on watching you know and then I could see, and I just looked again and I just couldn’t believe it and then I started crying and I kept crying," she said.

“I didn’t answer the telephone, when they (people) kept ringing, and I didn’t answer the door, when it was knocking, when people kept knocking,” she said.

The family eventually was compensated for the death of their elder with Mr Ward’s widow Nancy receiving an ex-gratia payment from the West Australian government.

During that time, Daisy said money was nothing to her and the Ward family because it would not bring him back.

"The human life that is taken from us was important. He was an elder and he did everything for us, and he still remains in us."

"Money is just a piece of paper,” Ms Ward said.

'Wholly unnecessary and avoidable': Inquest into Mr Ward’s Death

The Coroner described Mr Ward’s death as “terrible” and stated it was “wholly unnecessary and avoidable”.

Forensic pathologist Gerard Cadden testified at the coroner’s inquest and said Mr Ward was in a dangerous situation from the very beginning of the trip.

He testified that during the transport, as Mr Ward’s body temperature increased, his organs would have stopped working and his central nervous system would have failed. 

Dr Cadden also testified that due to Mr Ward’s blood alcohol level, when he was put into the prison van, he would have already been dehydrated.

The Coroner’s report found that the air conditioning system in the rear of the van was “inadequate” and had “never been capable of providing adequate” cooling for long trips in high temperatures".

He said the use of the pods to transport prisoners in long distance travels was “inhumane”. 

The death in custody of Mr Ward in 2008 is making headlines again after a fresh set of charges were laid against those involved.

Mr Ward’s death highlighted major discrimination issues in the West Australian justice system such as over policing, denial of bail, inhumane prisoner transport conditions, inadequate training of Justices of the Peace (JPs), police and private contractor staff and lack of governmental supervision of contractual duties of the prisoner transport company GSL.

June 12 2009, the WA Coroner made 14 recommendations at the inquest. Since then a number of those recommendations have been adopted.

There has been more usage of video- link calls, air flights for prisoners in regional/remote Western Australia, changes were made to the Bail Act 1982, improvements to the training of Justice of the Peace, the termination of the G4S’s contract with the state government, the prosecution of the drivers, GLS and the West Australian government under the Occupational Safety and Health Act.

Reflecting on the 10 years since Mr Ward passed away, the Department of Justice (formerly known as the Department of Corrective Services and the Attorney General) extended their condolences to the Ward family.  

The current West Australian Corrective Services Minister, Fran Logan also said this tragedy “should never have happened”.

Ben Wyatt, the current Aboriginal Affairs Minister for the state, also released a statement to NITV News.

Minister Wyatt said Mr Ward’s death was a “dark period” in the Western Australia’s history and has a had a lasting impact on the Ward family as well as the Aboriginal community.

“We often forget or compromise the common humanity we have with each other and the way Mr Ward was treated by Government agencies that ultimately led to his death broke the humanity we share."

Who was ultimately responsible for his death?

According to the coroner, Mr Ward was in the custody of the Department of Corrective Services at the time of his death. Therefore the Department had a duty of care.

His findings also stated it was “inexcusable” for the Department of Corrective Services to not have replaced their vans with “more humane system of transport” after a report in 2001 constituted a failure to comply with its duty of care commitments.

The coroner’s findings found the Department of Corrective Services, GSL, and the actions of the two drivers all contributed to Mr Ward’s death.

Under the contract with GSL, the Department of Corrective Services paid for the fleet of vehicles and maintenance. GSL organised repairs and then invoiced the Government.

No one has ever been criminally charged over Mr Ward’s death, though the West Australian Department of Corrective Services and the contracting company both pled guilty to Worksafe charges.

The two drivers, Graham Powell and Nina Stokoe both pled guilty to their charges and Ms Stokoe was fined $11, 000 and Mr Powell fined $9000.

The Department of Corrective Services had four charges made against them. They were charged under the Occupational Safety and Health Act, found guilty, and fined $285,000.

GSL was also fined $285,000.

Paul Kaplan, Chair of Justice for Mr Ward Campaign Committee believes that once the dust had settled on Mr Ward’s case it was back to ‘normal’ for the West Australian justice system.

“That normal is a white justice system that discriminates against Indigenous people.

“Western Australia has not made enough progress to change the systemic and institutionalised racism that exists in WA,” he said.

Many in Western Australia hope to have the Custodial Notification Service (CNS) introduced to the state soon following a commitment by the current labor Government.

The Department of Justice has told NITV News they are currently working with the Commonwealth Government to get CNS rolled out by the second half of this year.

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