I was with Daisy Ward on Saturday as we read together Debbie Guest’s story ‘Bush elder “killed by incompetence”‘ in The Weekend Australian for which Ms Ward had been interviewed.

The article reported on the ongoing inquest into the death of Daisy’s cousin, Indigenous man ‘Ribs’ Ward (his family does not want his first name used for cultural reasons). Mr Ward died on 27 January, 2008, while being transported from the Laverton police lock-up to Goldfields Regional Prison, 360km away, by guards working for private corporation GSL.

The inquest has been told that there was no functional air-conditioning in the rear of the van where Mr Ward was held, and despite starting the trip in a dehydrated state, he was subjected to temperatures above 50 degrees. Despite this, guards Graham Powell and Nina Stokoe did not stop on the journey. Ms Stokoe told the inquest she thought the rear ‘pod’ was air-conditioned, saying, “I had a joke with Graham: ‘I bet he’s freezing his balls off while we’re sitting here stinking hot.'”

Some joke.

What left Ms Ward stunned, however, was one sentence near the end of the Weekend Australian story: “Until then, (when coroner Alastair Hope hands down his findings after the inquest resumes in May) the two officers involved will continue to transport prisoners for GSL, which is now known as G4S.”

Despite sitting through the whole inquest to date, Ms Ward was not aware that the two guards are still driving prisoners. “After a man who was going to be Elder, they took his life away, no duty of care, they are still working?” she said. “If things like this happened to their family, what would they do? Would they want the guards to keep working? Why do they allow them to work? Why?”

I asked Jim Hall, media manager for G4S, whether he could confirm that Ms Stokoe and Mr Powell were still transporting prisoners. “We never ever, for security and privacy reasons, comment on our staff or operational matters,” Mr Hall said. “We stick to that policy rigidly in this line of business.”

This rendered obsolete my second question: where is the moral leadership from this large international corporation? As a show of good faith during the inquest process, and out of respect to the family of the deceased man, why not transfer the guards to different duties or even give them leave on full pay?

I put the same questions to Christian Porter, WA Minister for Corrective Services, who responded, “As this matter is still before the Coroner it would be inappropriate to comment.”

Regardless of the outcome of the inquest, it is indisputable that Mr Ward died while in the ‘care’ of G4S employees. Presumably the fear of legal ramifications prevents G4S making any gesture of apology — verbal or otherwise — regardless of the inquest’s findings. It seems risk management applies to public statements of sorrow or contrition, but not to what happens when a dehydrated man is driven 360km in an inhumanely hot ‘pod’ without a seatbelt.

For Ms Ward, the lack of humanity is sickening. “They are giving us more pain, more heartache,” she said. An offer has been made for her people to conduct a smoking ceremony on the vehicle in which Mr Ward died. Ms Ward said she wanted nothing to do with such a thing. “They are the ones who made the problem, let them fix it. All I want is to see that van crushed.”

Meanwhile, her most pressing concern is that the two guards are still driving prisoners, and that other people might receive the same treatment as ‘Ribs’ Ward. It is not a question of being innocent until proved guilty; it is a larger issue of showing good faith, and of perception being reality. The perception of Ms Ward is that allowing these guards to continue driving prisoners, some of whom might be Mr Ward’s close relatives, indicates that G4S thinks his life was worthless.

“They (G4S) should be really ashamed of themselves,” she said. “What is this company doing to us families? What are they thinking when we have tears in our eyes listening to everything said about my cousin? Were they ashamed of themselves for what they did? Or what?”

Peter Fray

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