Saturday, January 22, 2011

Charges laid over death of Mr Ward

Three years after Aboriginal elder Mr Ward was cooked to death in the back of a prison van, charges have finally been laid against the four parties found responsible by coroner Alistair Hope.

The charges have been laid by government workplace safety agency WorkSafe under the Occupational Safety and Health Act.

A January 19 WorkSafe media statement explains that the agency had ``considered that a police investigation was more appropriate than a WorkSafe investigation because the charges and penalties available under their legislation were stronger and more appropriate’’.

However, when in June 2010 the Director of Public Prosecutions made the controversial announcement that criminal charges would not be laid, WorkSafe began an investigation.

The result is the decision to prosecute the WA Department of Corrective Services, the government contractor G4S (formerly GSL) and the two drivers of the prison van.

The decision to lay charges has been welcomed by the family of Mr Ward and by the Deaths in Custody Watch Committee. Watch Committee chairperson Marianne Mackay told Green Left Weekly that WorkSafe should be congratulated ``for actually doing something to achieve justice’’.

She also called on the Director of Public Prosecutions to release the evidence ``which led to his decision in not laying charges’’.

``We as the public deserve to know why he made the decision not to lay charges.’’

The WorkSafe prosecutions were also welcomed by the Aboriginal Legal Service, the WA Greens, Socialist Alliance and the Labor Party (which was in government at the time of Mr Ward’s death).

Denis Eggington from the Aboriginal Legal Service also criticised the Department of Public Prosecutions for not laying charges itself.

``It was our advice - and I know from others - that we thought that there was enough evidence for criminal negligence [charges] and it should have been the DPP and the police prosecuting.’’

Nevertheless, he said ``it's taken three years but we do welcome the end result’’.

In welcoming the charges, Socialist Alliance spokesperson Sanna Andrew told Green Left that ``heartfelt congratulations should be extended to the Deaths in Custody Watch Committee for tirelessly campaigning for justice on this issue – we may never have gotten to this point had it not been for the ongoing efforts by Watch Committee activists’’.

The Corrective Services Commissioner Ian Johnson responded to the laying charges by saying that there had been a ``complete overhaul of the transportation of prisoners’’ since Mr Ward’s death.

In response, Deputy Chair of the DICWC Marc Newhouse told Green Left Weekly that it is impossible to verify Johnson’s claims because they refuse to release details of their compliance with the coroner’s recommendations.

Newhouse pointed out that there were two investigations into prisoner transportation in the ten years before Mr Ward’s death and that if the department had implemented the changes recommended in those investigations, Mr Ward’s death would not have happened.

He also criticised the ongoing reliance on privatised prisoner transport services by the WA government which he said had a worse safety record than publicly run services.

[This article by Alex Bainbridge was submitted to Green Left Weekly.]