On 27 January 2008 Mr Ward, an Aboriginal elder, died a horrific death while in the custody of the West Australian police. Mr Ward had been arrested for an alleged drink driving offence.
After being taken to the local lockup he was driven 570km to a courthouse, remanded in custody and then driven a further 352km to prison. The air temperature in the back of the van was over 47 degrees and the metal surface reached 56 degrees. The guards driving the van did not stop to check if he needed a toilet break, food or water until they heard a thud from the back when Mr Ward passed out. Even then they didn’t unlock the cell doors, instead throwing water through the chained-up inner door, he died not long after.
On Saturday 20 June over 1500 people turned out on a wet and rainy day in Perth to show their support for the family of Mr Ward and demonstrate their anger at the appalling conditions surrounding his death. In the words of one demonstrator “The terrible death of Mr Ward reflects the basic fact that we do not treat and see our Aboriginal brothers and sisters as the truly human people that they are…”.
Mardu elder Teddy Biljabu, a relative and representative of Mr Ward’s family, said his people had been devastated by the loss of an elder who was described as a cultural man, dancer and artist.
There were calls for justice for the family and for the State government and GSL, a private company contracted to run prisoner transport at a profit, to be held to account. There were also calls for an end to privatisation of prison services and to cancel the contract with GSL (now G4S).
There have been more than 200 Aboriginal deaths in custody since the 1991 Royal Commission into Black Deaths in Custody. In only two incidents in Australian history, have police been charged in connection with an Aboriginal death in custody, in 1986 and 2007, and on both occasions the police officers were acquitted.
The death of Mr Ward highlights the issue of racism that is entrenched in the police force. It also shows that prison privatisation has been a failure. In 2001 prison administrators declared that transport vans were not fit for humans to be transported in, but they were still used by GSL who were not prepared to spend the money needed to make the vans safe.
Mr Ward suffered third degree burns and died a horrible death. His death is yet another demonstration of the ongoing oppression against Aboriginal people in Australia. As the racist Northern Territory intervention shows the Australian government is prepared to say sorry but is not prepared to do any more than pay lip service to Aboriginal people. Only unity between Aboriginal and non-aboriginal working class people can put an end to exploitation, racism and discrimination.
By David Suter