United Nations: Elder’s heatstroke death in police van possible torture or inhuman punishment

lavertontokalThe United Nations has now requested information on the death by police of a Ngaanyatjarra (near Warburton) Aboriginal elder and community worker last year. He was a conservation worker, a supporter and interpreter for local police, an advocate and educator for children of the Gibson Desert, and an international ambassador for Ngaanyatjarra peoples.

The man was transported in the back of a police van through the desert in mid-summer by a private contractor, Global Solutions Ltd (GSL). He was transported without air conditioning, without well-being checks, and without water for four hours, before being found dead with third-degree burns on his abdomen from contact with the metal floor. The air temperature in the back of the van is likely to have reached temperatures of over 50 degrees Celsius.

The West reports:

A UN representative on Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment and Punishment contacted the Australian Government last year seeking information on the death of Warburton resident Mr W*, who collapsed while being taken from Kalgoorlie to Laverton in 42C heat in January last year. […]

Shadow corrective services minister Margaret Quirk urged the Government to release its response to the UN inquiry, saying there was an enormous level of public interest in Mr W’s death. A coronial inquest into Mr W’s death, which sparked a review of prisoner transport services, will resume in Kalgoorlie-Boulder on Monday.

Protests on the circumstances surrounding this death have been ongoing for months. Last month, the Deaths in Custody Watch Committee (WA) arranged a protest outside the Ministry of Corrective Services in Perth:

Protest organiser, the Deaths in Custody Watch Committee, held an emergency meeting in Perth recently and intends to issue Attorney-General Christian Porter a list of demands later today.

The road between Laverton and Kalgoorlie looks like this:

ABC Local** explains a little more about what happened, in Bush elder ‘killed by incompetence’ [Fahrenheit translations are mine]:

The journey lasted four hours and outside temperatures were in the mid 40s (113 F). The inquest has heard the airconditioning in the rear of the van was not working.

Today, a senior chemist who assisted in a re-enactment of the incident in similar conditions told the inquiry the air temperature in the back of the van reached 50.4C [123 F]. He also told the court the surface temperature of the metal floor in the back peaked at 56.6C [134 F] during the re-enactment.

The inquest has also been told one of the guards who transported Mr W had previously been stood down by his company for breaching procedure.

The West explains further that Mr W’s body temperature was 41.7C after 20 minutes of resuscitation in an ice bath with fans. At the inquest, a doctor testified that it was likely Mr W’s body temperature would have been higher than 45C at the time he reached the hospital. He was literally cooked to death.

The Australian tells us more about the GSL infighting following the death: Bush elder ‘killed by incompetence’

One senior GSL employee accused her two subordinates, guards Graham Powell and Nina Stokoe, who drove W to Kalgoorlie, of incompetence and lying about the circumstances surrounding his death.

Ms Stokoe and Mr Powell said that, while they did not stop on the way to Kalgoorlie when transporting W, as soon as they heard a thud they pulled over and tried to rouse him. Both testified this week that after realising he wasn’t well, they rushed to Kalgoorlie District Hospital and asked for medical assistance.

Yesterday Mr Powell agreed he should bear a moral responsibility for W’s death and that he should have stopped during the trip.

Ms Stokoe said she was never told that officers were required to make regular welfare checks, ensure prisoners had enough food and water and check the air-conditioning.

GSL, the largest private security company in the world, is no stranger to controversy. In 2004, it was fined almost $500,000 over its mistreatment of asylum-seekers after the company transported five detainees from Maribyrnong Detention Centre in Melbourne to Baxter Immigration Facility in South Australia.

Despite the incident, GSL is contracted until October to provide security at all of Australia’s immigration detention centres, including the facility at Christmas Island.

The Australian continues: “GSL blames state for poor condition of prisoner vans”

[Guard Mr Powell] also did not tell W that there was a duress alarm in the back of the van in case he needed help. Coroner Alastair Hope added that the alarm was virtually useless because the alarm in the front of the car did not make a noise and only lit up if someone constantly pressed it.

It was not until they heard a thud just outside Kalgoorlie that they pulled over and checked on W and could not rouse him. “I thought he was still asleep because of the snoring sound he was making,” Mr Powell said.

Mr Powell, who remains at GSL, has not been disciplined over W’s death and continues to transport prisoners.

I am glad that the United Nations is beginning to get interested in the appalling treatment of Aboriginal people and asylum seekers at the hands of the Australian Government and its employees. Nearly twenty years after the final report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, things only seem to be getting worse.

According to Green Left Weekly, anyone interested in getting involved in this campaign should contact Marc, from the Aboriginal Deaths in Custody Watch Committee, on 0415 074 602.


* Full name redacted as it is considered disrespectful to say the names or show the images of dead people in some Australian Indigenous cultures, and I don’t have specific information on the family/community’s preference in this case.

** Warning: contains photograph of Mr W.

Categories: ethics & philosophy, indigenous, law & order, social justice, violence

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

8 replies

  1. I remember this story vividly now – I was absolutely speechless with outrage when I heard their excuses for being so callously and culpably negligent.
    Cruel and unusual punishment, indeed.

  2. Have these people never taken a DOG out in a car in summer?
    (No, I’m not likening the elder to a dog, I’m saying there are common-sense precautions you take when transporting ANY living thing in the moving metal oven in the Australian summer. Water and fresh air being obvious basics.)
    Duty of care, people?

  3. He wasn’t a “living thing”, Deus. He was a person, a human.

  4. I remember this too and how horrified I was that in four hours they never bothered to stop and check on him. Even if they mistakenly thought that the air conditioning was working, they could have at least checked if he needed to use a bathroom, or needed something to eat and drink.

  5. He wasn’t a “living thing”, Deus. He was a person, a human.


  6. My partner’s a lawyer who works with remote area Aboriginal people, and going on the hair-curling stories she tells me, this is a case that just went too far to be ignored as it usually is. Police brutality and racism is RAMPANT in remote areas, it’s like it’s another country entirely – and most Aboriginal people there don’t complain in the whitefella way.
    Poor fucking bloke. What a horrible way to die. Manslaughter, anyone?

  7. Uh, “living things” includes human beings. Kinda thought that was fairly obvious.

  8. I do think that some people think more “logically” rather than “emotionally” and hence “living things” would be seen as “correct” rather than “insensitive”. I come up against this dichotomy all the time when interacting with other women, and often try to compensate for it.

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