It is just over three months since the WA state coroner handed down the finding that a respected Aboriginal elder, Mr Ward, had been subjected to degrading treatment in breach of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and further, had not been treated with the ‘humanity and respect for the inherent dignity of the human’ owed to all persons deprived of liberty as prescribed by the ICCPR.
Mr Ward, whose first name cannot be mentioned for cultural reasons, was arrested in relation to traffic offences on Australia Day 2008. By the next day he was dead, his body registering a temperature of over 41 degrees. A large burn mark showed where his flesh had sizzled when it came into contact with the scorching sides of the airless metal van in which he was transported through the Central Desert. In the graphic words of some commentators, he had been painfully "cooked to death".
The shocking death made international headlines and caused outrage across Australia. On 15 September, thousands of signatures were delivered to the WA Parliament calling for the state to act on the findings of the coroner, and immediate termination of the contract with G4S, the private operator of the vehicle in which Mr Ward died.
While much of the attention has focused on the question of prisoner transport, the conditions under which Mr Ward was moved from the lock-up in Laverton are only the last fatal link in a chain of decisions and events. The chain of circumstances and small, preventable acts that resulted in his death was described by counsel acting on behalf of the family as a "litany of errors". The organisers of a public forum following the handover of the petition identified this chain of events as a systemic and systematic bias, revealing an infrastructure of racism.
The links of the chain are made up of a number of distinct elements: the racism of remote Australia with its colonial systems of policing and brutally inadequate facilities for dealing with its (overwhelmingly Aboriginal) prisoners. Such conditions are compounded by the casual racisms of small-town WA, where petty officials make arbitrary decisions with life and death consequences. The coroner’s finding that the refusal of bail to Mr Ward was in contravention of the Bail Act is an indicator of how, in these small places, the dispensation of justice itself is above the law, a matter of whim or personal prejudice.
It is no coincidence, perhaps, that WA has the highest incarceration rates of Aboriginal people in the nation. The movement against Aboriginal deaths in custody can be said to have begun here with the death of 16-year-old John Pat in Roebourne jail in 1983. In the intervening quarter century, new racisms have emerged to entwine destructively with the old. Australia’s embrace of neoliberal policies, the prioritising of economic over other values, weighs most heavily on its already vulnerable groups. The outsourcing of government functions and responsibilities, however, cannot absolve the state of its ultimate duties of care for those deprived of liberty or those subject to racism.
Since 2001 neoliberalism’s racist effects have enmeshed in turn with the racisms that flow from the war on terror and the pervasive securitisation of the nation. As both ideology and policy, "security" provides a new legitimacy to measures that impact on all detainees, including those in the domestic system. Mr Ward’s death bears a chilling comparison to the so-called "convoy of death", in which a large number of Afghans, assumed to be enemy fighters, were crammed into the back of a metal container, to be transported through the desert. Their cries for help and desperate pounding on the sides of the van were ignored. Most ended up dead.
To link the two events is to remember that Australia’s first peoples, too, are enmeshed in a long-running war, a war whose story may, in one sense, be told through the statistics of incarceration. Yet it is true, too, that the practices and technologies of the domestic custodial system are becoming more interpenetrated by new technologies of counter-insurgency and anti-terrorism. Militarism abroad cannot be disentangled from securitisation at home. The two meet in the detention practices against asylum seekers adopted since 2001. Almost four years before Mr Ward’s death, an independent investigation found that a group of asylum seekers transported by the same private contractor, G4S, from Marybynong Detention Centre in Melbourne to Baxter in South Australia were subject to inhumane treatment. Their health and safety was placed at risk, deprived of adequate food and water to the point where some were forced to drink urine. No one died that day, but these instances lay bare the disposability of some lives in a system whose very infrastructure is racist and which makes for the patently unequal administration of justice.
How to begin to address institutional racism in the justice system? Firstly, making racism visible must be a public process. Knee-jerk responses, hand wringing and tinkering at the edges, the standard modalities of managing crisis situations, are not enough. Supposed improvements that will see incarceration made more efficient, such as the transport of prisoners on airplanes or in air-conditioned coaches, will not be enough if they fail at the same time to address the systemic forces that criminalise target populations.
The petitioners who came to the steps of the WA Parliament are calling for a Royal Commission into institutional racism. At one of the earlier public rallies in Perth a family spokesman exhorted the crowd "What Eddie Mabo was to native title, let Mr Ward be to the justice system." The Mabo decision marked a momentous symbolic and political shift in the fight for land rights. Could it be that Mr Ward’s death will be remembered as the turning point of another campaign for justice, one that is driven by a list of names that is horrible in its length — including John Pat, Robert Walker, Charlie Michaels, Eddie Murray, David Gundy, Daniel Yock, Cameron Doomadgee, and many, many more?
At a public forum at Perth Town Hall after the handover of the petition, some of us present felt that there was a spirit for change abroad in the land, a rallying call for an end to the infrastructural racism of our detention camps and prisons.
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