Prison operator responsible for inmate’s death, coroner finds

A Victorian coroner has found that private prison operator GSL contributed to the death of an inmate who died of an asthma attack after pressing a prison intercom button that did not work.

Ian Westcott, 50, a remand prisoner at Port Phillip Prison, was found dead in his cell on November 26, 2005.

On a desk in his cell, police found a note in his handwriting.

“Asthma attack. Buzzed for help. No response,” he had written.

Coroner Audrey Jamieson today said there was a direct correlation between the intercom failure and Mr Westcott’s death, which she said was preventable.

She said that on the balance of probabilities, the outcome of Mr Westcott’s asthma attack would have been preventable had a secure intercom system been provided by GSL.

“Technology must be capable of meeting the security needs for the isolated at all times,” she said.

GSL, which now trades as G4S, had earlier been criticised by a West Australian coroner over the death of an Aboriginal elder who died of heatstroke after being transported for more than 360 kilometres in the back of a van without air-conditioning.

The company was also criticised over the hanging death of four inmates at Port Phillip Prison in 2000.

Ms Jamieson recommended a state review of intercom systems in all Victorian prisons.

She also recommended that the St Vincent’s correctional health service develop better standards for document keeping, provide better medical assessments of incoming prisoners and label all prisoners’ medication.

The inquest heard Mr Westcott’s asthma was not adequately managed despite the fact he informed the prison he suffered from the illness when he entered remand five months before his death.

The intercom was last found to have worked 11 days before Mr Westcott’s death. A test after his death revealed that a damaged telephone connection was probably to blame for its failure.

The connection was later replaced.

Ms Jamieson commended prison authorities for ordering daily manual checks of the prison’s intercom system after Mr Westcott’s death.

The inquest heard that earlier, prison officers only visually inspected the cells each day, while technical contractors manually tested the intercom every three months.

A scheduled manual check in October had been postponed.

Mr Westcott’s daughter Vanessa said she and her mother would not rest until all of the recommendations were implemented.

“He was so gentle and wise,” Ms Westcott said of her father through tears.

“He had a depth to him, he could appreciate small things and treasures, he was just my friend and he could be here if people had a bit of human decency.”

Ms Westcott said corrections authorities also bore some responsibility for her father’s death.

G4S spokesman Tim Hall said the company greatly regretted the death of Mr Westcott under their care.

G4S is currently bidding to be the operator of the Parklea prison in NSW.

Asked whether their bid would now be untenable, Mr Hall said he did not think so but added that he couldn’t comment about what assessment the NSW Government would make.

Asked about the operator’s responsibility for the deaths in 2000, Mr Hall said “yes, but we are in 2009”.



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