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Issue #1511      27 July 2011

Governments must get serious about deaths in custody

The death of the Warburton Elder in WA to any reasonably minded Australian was manslaughter. The reduced fine of $285,000 is an insult to the family and to all Australians.

The Warburton Elder was arrested in January 2008 on traffic offences and instead of being advised of ways forward and of his obligations or being bailed he was, on a 43 degree Celcius day, placed in the metal back of a prisoner transport vehicle and driven from Laverton to Kalgoorlie. Any reasonably minded person would know that the compartment, without air conditioning, would exceed outside temperatures. Any reasonably minded person would know that the Warburton Elder would be dead on arrival.

WorkSafe laid charges, with only the possibility of financial penalties.

The WA government, and the federal government, have not heeded many reports about prison health and of police and prison practices and they have not heeded the recommendations of many reports on how to reduce incarceration rates.

The Kalgoorlie Court Magistrate must explain why only $285,000 was considered adequate as a financial penalty when the Magistrate had at hand a higher financial penalty – this symbolism does matter. It matters to send the “right message”.

The death was not just negligence, it was manslaughter and the state government, the Department of Corrective Services, the company G4S and its drivers are culpable. They should have been tried in criminal and civil courts – the reduction of this unwarranted death to the jurisdiction of WorkSafe alone is an utter disgrace and cop-out, a whitewash.

Australia has one of the world’s worst deaths in custody records and nothing will change unless governments, authorities, police and prisons, like the rest of Australia, are held responsible for their actions. The death of the Warburton Elder was avoidable and Ministers have said this, the State Attorney-General has said this and therefore if his death was avoidable the responsible people and authorities must be brought to account.

Only when governments, authorities, and officials, be they police and prison officers, are held responsible and culpable, and to the extent that they face the prospect of prison sentences and personal liability, only then will practices, protocols, policies change to such an extent as to remove us from the negative and dangerous consequences of high end risk of the maltreatment and abuse of people. Only then will deaths in custody be reduced. The responsibility has to become personal!

Since 1980 there have been over 2,500 Australian deaths in custody, and Aboriginal deaths in custody during this last decade have risen to 20.2 percent of all deaths in custody. No death in custody, police or prison custodial-related, has secured a successful prosecution – and only a handful have been presented before the criminal justice system. This explains why Australia has one of the world’s worst deaths in custody records and this fact also contributes to why so many Aboriginal people are incarcerated.

The Warburton Elder’s death is one of seven Australian deaths in custody extensively included in the PhD Law research of Gerry Georgatos, convenor of the Human Rights Alliance. The Warburton Elder’s death along with six other deaths will be submitted to the United Nations under the Convention on Torture and to the UN Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.  

Next article – Imperialism 101 (Part 2) – Artificially converted to poverty

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