Exclusive: Detainees denied cold water, cooling before NT prison riot
It’s sundown on December 29, 2018. A hot day begins to turn into an oppressive night. Temperatures have hit 45.6 degrees. In the security tower of the Alice Springs Correctional Centre, an officer notices a flash of red across a monitor. Shirts are being flung over the surveillance cameras in the prison’s remand courtyard, rendering them useless.
The officer calls guards on the ground to notify them that there is “something happening inside the block, and that it looked orchestrated”. Through the remaining unobstructed camera, the officer watches more men in the courtyard remove their shirts.
A call comes over the prison’s PA system: “Attention staff, code yellow Golf Block Remand.”
On the ground, officers are attempting to complete “lockdown” procedures, confining prisoners to their cells and dormitories until morning. But it’s sweltering in the prison. The temperature recorded earlier in the day is a record – but almost every day that month has been above 35 degrees. There is no airconditioning in the prison’s cells and no cold water. The weather is so extreme that the water out of the pipes – the only drinking water – is hot.
Alice Springs Correctional Centre is an adult minimum- and maximum-security prison. On any given day, nearly 600 men and women are locked up there – about 83 per cent of whom are Aboriginal, and many of whom are held on remand. Although accused of offences, those on remand are yet to be found guilty or sentenced by a judge.
In the remand block, some of those incarcerated refuse to put their shirts back on and be locked down into cramped spaces for the night. “It’s too fucking hot,” one man calls out, according to later testimony from a correctional officer. A group of those held on remand approach prison staff to make their demands clear: “The block will not be moving in for lockdown today … it’s too hot in the dorms.”
Documents obtained by The Saturday Paper under freedom of information laws detail for the first time how the situation inside the facility declined over the next few hours. By 9.30pm, officers on duty had declared the standoff a riot, donned riot gear and released chemical agents into the remand block.
The FOI documents detail how those incarcerated inside ASCC made repeated requests to prison officials for cold water and ice before the riot broke out. They show that the extraction fans in the remand block were also temporarily broken, so there was no air flowing through the cramped concrete spaces. By all accounts, the conditions were unbearable. The NT News quoted guards calling them “inhumane and insane”.
Pedestal fans were given to some people, but the FOI documents suggest these were treated as a “privilege” and not given to everyone. The Northern Territory Attorney-General’s Department confirmed officers could remove these fans at any time if there was concern for “safety or good order”: “There is no specific protocol regarding fans.”
One person incarcerated at ASCC said the small fans merely circulated hot air, making the room “like an oven”. Erina Early, the Northern Territory branch secretary of the United Voice union, told the ABC 16 men were crammed into a dormitory built for eight people on the night of the riot. According to lawyer Sophie Trevitt, who was based in Alice Springs at the time of the riot, there were also reports of guards “refusing to let prisoners fill up cups of water”.
A year on, as Australia heads into another summer of record-breaking heat, serious questions remain about the ASCC riot. The NT Attorney-General’s Department has confirmed that airconditioning is still only available at the facility in areas where mothers and babies are imprisoned, and in one high-security cell.
According to the correctional centre, “fans and mister systems have been installed in some accommodation areas” at the facility, as well as some shade structures.
There are no federal standards for temperature in Australian prisons.
In the early evening at ASCC, tensions rise after the initial refusal to return to the cells. The remand block begins to collectively “arm up”. Whatever objects or loose infrastructural features are to hand – plastic chairs, fan bases, food trays, piping – become makeshift weapons.
In one officer’s retelling of the incident, when the prison’s deputy superintendent asks for detail of the problem, a unit spokesperson replies: “What the problem is, is the fucking heat and you cunts locking us up in those fucking rooms.” In one guard’s retelling, the man continues, “It’s not fucking on and enough is enough where [sic] not going to cop it anymore, where [sic] not going in where [sic] going to stay out all night and you can get us ice for cold drinks.”
But the FOI documents make clear the frustration of the men was not limited to the day’s heat. It had been growing over broader prison conditions, including the poor standards of living, the meagre quantities of low-quality food, and overcrowding in dormitories.
As negotiations between prison management and the inmates fall apart, the prison’s Immediate Action Team (IAT) is instructed to retrieve the riot-control trolley, including helmets, shields and extendable batons. The IAT is also ordered to collect “necessary chemical agents”, along with gasmasks, gas grenade-launchers and gas shotguns. In an official statement, one officer refers to these chemical agents as a “party pack”.
Asked about the term, the Northern Territory Attorney-General’s Department said, “A party pack is a slang term used by many law enforcement agencies for a personal use chemical agent canister, which NT Correctional Officers are approved to use.”
What ensues is effectively a standoff between rioters and guards. Detritus is thrown around the unit and objects hurled at doors by inmates; fire hoses are used to spray soapy water on the ground; mattresses are pushed against the grill to construct a makeshift barricade.
About 9.30pm, authorities enter the block and deploy chemical agents – Triple-Chaser chemical agent munitions, MK-9 CS (tear) gas and OC (pepper) spray – using grenades and gas guns. Triple-Chasers, according to the manufacturer Defense Technology’s website, are grenades that consist of three tear gas canisters pressed together.
Many men are removed from the remand block and taken for “separate confinement” – solitary confinement – in the maximum-security section of the prison. According to the FOI documents, prisoners were given buckets of water at this point and “advised as to how to decontaminate themselves”.
At least two men suffer adverse reactions to the chemical agents. One man has to be immediately removed from the block, requiring urgent medical attention; another collapses from shortness of breath. During the course of the riot, people in remand block make at least four calls to the security tower, either to report chest pains or to request an ambulance. These requests are almost all immediately “stood down”. According to the FOI documents, officers cite overhearing laughter on the intercom as the reason one complaint is dismissed.
The riot was inevitable, says Debbie Kilroy, the chief executive of Sisters Inside. “In a desert-climate prison without airconditioning, people are going to get angry, it’s going to get heated,” she says. “And it’s not people in prisons’ fault.”
Elizabeth Grant, an associate professor of architecture and urban design at RMIT, says “riots don’t just occur”. “They are often a response to inadequate prison environments and the conditions in many Australian prisons are substandard.”
The conditions at ASCC – the lack of adequate cooling mechanisms and ventilation – appear to directly contradict basic guidelines for principles and practices in carceral institutions.
Both the Standard Guidelines for Prison Facilities in Australia and New Zealand and the United Nations’ Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners stipulate the importance of air, heating and ventilation, so buildings “meet all requirements of health”.
However, these standards are “vague”, Grant says. “While it’s a relatively new building, I don’t think that Alice Springs Correctional Centre is well designed. Most of the units comprise a series of non-airconditioned dormitories and cells, which enclose courtyards, which can reach extreme temperatures. Each unit has a common area which is airconditioned, but this is not always accessible to prisoners.”
In her research, Grant has found that while exposure to extreme temperatures has proved to be fatal for people in prison and police custody, Australia has no national temperature standards for people in custody.
In 2008, senior Ngaanyatjarra lore man Mr Ward was killed in custody, effectively “cooked” to death in a prison transport van with a faulty airconditioning unit, according to Western Australian Coroner Alastair Hope’s findings. The coroner found both the Department of Corrective Services and the private security transport company, Global Solutions Limited, had “failed to comply with their duty of care”.
This week, more than a decade on, figures released by the WA Prison Officers’ Union reported “extreme” heat inside the state’s Bunbury Regional Prison. In one room, a thermometer recorded temperatures of at least 50 degrees. Airflow was prevented, as prison authorities had taped over air vents to fix leaking windows. The prison reopened just months ago, after a $23.7 million expansion and “upgrade”.
Elizabeth Grant says solutions that focus too narrowly on reforming single infrastructural issues – such as installing airconditioners – are unlikely to address the root of the problem.
Sophie Trevitt says that, in the Northern Territory, police criminalise behaviours directly linked to the weather. She gives the example of one of her clients, a young boy who was repeatedly in trouble for breaching his curfew. “It was too hot for him to be outside around during the day,” she says. “His housing was overcrowded, so he would sleep during the day and walk around at night, when it was cooler.
“The failure to provide adequate, decent public housing that is kept warm in winter and cool in summer drives people outdoors. That means during summer you have lots of Aboriginal people outside in public places because their houses are too hot to live in.
“They come to the attention of police, and the cycle begins again.”
Debbie Kilroy says the prison system is not “broken” – it is functioning exactly as designed. “When people act up and fight back, then they’re punished. People end up back in courts, get more time, and the system continues,” she says. “How many people have to die in custody until the community says no more police and prisons?”
A police investigation into the riot is ongoing. Once the prison produces a quote of the damages caused to the facility, Northern Territory police intend to press criminal charges against the alleged “instigators” of the riot – those who advocated on behalf of the unit on the sweltering day.
This article has been modified to reflect that a number of misters and shade structures have been installed at Alice Springs Correctional Centre since this incident occured.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 14, 2019 as "Exclusive: Detainees denied cold water, cooling before NT prison riot". Subscribe here.