Rights lost in transit: transporting prisoners

Lucie O'Brien

The ABC’s Four Corners program recently aired the story of Mr Ward, a West Australian indigenous man who died in custody in January 2008. Mr Ward had been drink driving and was on his way to the Kalgoorlie Magistrates’ Court. The transport was provided by a private contractor, Global Solutions Limited.

As graphically depicted on Four Corners, Mr Ward travelled 360km in a steel pod without any windows, ventilation or effective means of communicating with the driver. The temperature that day was over 40 degrees. Despite this, GSL’s employees failed to check that the van’s air-conditioning system was working properly prior to commencing the trip. They didn’t give Mr Ward any food or water, and didn’t stop even after they saw him lying on the floor of the pod via the van’s CCTV.

When the GSL officers finally stopped to check Mr Ward’s condition, just outside Kalgoorlie, he had third-degree burns on his stomach where his skin had touched the metal floor of the pod. Incredibly, they left him where he lay as they drove to Kalgoorlie Hospital. By that time the temperature in the pod was well over 50 degrees. Mr Ward died shortly afterwards in hospital.

When questioned by the Coroner, the officers said that to remove Mr Ward from the pod would have been contrary to GSL policy. GSL is part of a multinational private prison consortium. It holds contracts with the Victorian Government for the provision of prisoner transport and prison management.  

GSL has attracted equally fierce criticism for its practices in Victoria. In 2004 it transported five detainees from Maribyrnong Detention Centre to Baxter Detention Centre in cramped, overheated steel compartments. The detainees endured these conditions for seven hours without food or access to toilet facilities, and in most cases, without any water. The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission found that the five were subjected to degrading treatment and, as persons deprived of their liberty, were not treated with humanity or respect for the inherent dignity of the human person. As a consequence, it found, GSL had violated articles 7 and 10(1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

In light of this record of human rights abuses, it is time for the Government to rethink privatised prisoner transport in Victoria. It is imperative that its current arrangements undergo a thorough, independent review. The review should scrutinise GSL’s efforts to safeguard prisoners’ health, safety and human dignity, including training and disciplinary measures to ensure staff compliance. It should also consider compliance with the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act 2006. As a public authority, GSL is obliged to act consistently with the Charter, which guarantees the right to protection from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and the right to humane treatment when deprived of liberty.

As things stand, it is quite possible that privatised prisoner transport in Victoria breaches the Charter and the ICCPR. We must hope that this does not have tragic consequences.

Lucie O’Brien works as a policy officer for the Federation of Community Legal Centres (Vic). She is also a solicitor and a committee member of Liberty.