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In a boiling prison in WA, there is airconditioning in the guards’ toilets but not in the cells. After a 50.5 degree day this month, former prisoners warn someone will die from the heat. By Dechlan Brennan.

Inside Roebourne, Australia’s hottest prison

A cell in Roebourne Regional Prison, north of Perth.
A cell in Roebourne Regional Prison, north of Perth.
Credit: Office of the Inspector of Custodial Services

In practice, you can’t talk to the prisoners in Roebourne, 1500 kilometres north of Perth. The guards who will speak won’t speak on the record. “Once it gets over 45 degrees, anything is hot,” one says. “Up here, mate,” says another, “every day is boiling.”

Two weeks ago, on January 13, Roebourne Regional Prison marked its hottest day on record. Temperatures reached 50.5 degrees. Men who have been in those cells described the experience to me. There is no glass on the windows, only bars, and the air that blows in from the desert is so hot it burns your throat.

Some prefer to work on these days because it is “cooler in the sun than being locked up”. Prisoners eat in their rooms and the crumbs attract rats. Men who need medication are forced to line up outdoors. The heat radiates off the basketball court. The gymnasium bakes under a tin roof. Daniel, a Yamatji–Yindjibarndi man, left the prison six months ago. He describes the conditions as horrible. His own cell was “like an oven”.

There is no airconditioning where the prisoners are kept. It has been installed in the staff toilets but not all prison cells. There are fans but they only push the hot air around. One former inmate describes Roebourne as “the worst experience of my life”. Another explains that the heat drove them “mental”. Others used terms such as “inhumane”, “haunting” and “horrific”. One description is consistent: “It’s a shithole.”

For Gerry Georgatos, a prison reform advocate, the treatment of inmates in Roebourne prison is appalling. After the suicide of a 48-year-old Indigenous inmate in 2020, Georgatos accompanied then Western Australian Corrective Services commissioner Tony Hassall to the prison.

“We entered Roebourne prison on a stifling hot day at 40 degrees,” he tells The Saturday Paper. “The cells were furnace-like and doors were left open for hot air to dilute the hotter air inside.” After his last visit, he said: “I will never forget the stifling heat. I will never forget the hanging points, which are in every cell.”

Despite a 2020 report organised by the Office of the Inspector of Custodial Services, the WA government has continued to obfuscate on the issue of airconditioning. The minister for Corrective Services, Bill Johnston, didn’t answer direct questions about the lack of installation, instead issuing a statement.

“The Department of Justice employs a number of effective controls to manage the heat risk across the state,” it said. “At Roebourne, this includes fans in every cell, airconditioning in the recreation hall, shade structures in the main areas of the prison and a flexible routine to adjust to the Pilbara’s heat conditions.”

Eamon Ryan, who tabled the original report, argues that despite some initiatives being implemented, the issue of the intolerable heat in the cells remains. In the daytime, areas such as an airconditioned recreation room can provide relief for some of the prisoners. But at night, this respite dissipates.

“We are yet to see [the government] address the core issue of summer night-time temperatures in the cells,” Ryan tells The Saturday Paper. “We have described this as unbearable and a significant risk to the health and welfare of the prisoners held there.”

Now in Perth, Daniel has terrible memories of the conditions in Roebourne, where more than 80 per cent of inmates are Indigenous. “We cooked in the units,” he says. “There were boys sleeping on the floor: six, seven, eight in a cell with only four beds.”

He says the older inmates struggle in the heat. “A lot of the brothers, they have health problems, you know? A lot are on medication.” The distance from Perth also has an effect. “You feel isolated up here. It is an isolated, hot town and a lot of people just don’t care about us.”

Many inmates sleep on the ground because up in the beds “it was boiling”, Daniel says. “You had to get up in the night to jump in the sink to cool yourself down. Otherwise, you would burn.” The inmates rarely complained to guards, “because they wouldn’t have got help”. Like others I spoke to, Daniel believes there is only one conclusion to these conditions: “All I know is Roebourne prison needs aircon before someone dies.”

In his original report, Eamon Ryan documented accounts of heat rash on prisoners who slept like this. “During this inspection prisoners told us of having to endure prickly heat rash for months over summer,” he wrote. “We have, in the past, heard arguments that men and women in the Pilbara are used to these conditions. While this may be the case, they are unlikely to be routinely locked in a small room with one or more other adults for 12.5 hours or more each night.”

Mervyn Eades describes Roebourne as the worst prison he has seen. After a life in and out of prison, he was astounded when he first went there. Now the founder and chief executive of Ngalla Maya Aboriginal Corporation, a non-profit organisation, he works with recently released prisoners. “It is inhumane, no windows – just bars,” he says of Roebourne. “Insects and spiders crawl through and lay on top of you.”

On the issue of heat, Eades says, “If it is 50 outside, add five to 10 degrees on top of that in the cells.” Asked how inmates coped, he said some would “block the sink in the cell, so that it would overflow, and they could cool down”. Another former inmate described having to wet their only bed sheet and hang it in the window.

Alice Barter, acting director of legal services for the Aboriginal Legal Service of Western Australia, compares the conditions in the Roebourne cells to those endured by Ngaanyatjarra elder Mr Ward who in 2008 died in the back of a police van without airconditioning. On that day, the temperature reached 56 degrees.

“We have serious concerns for their mental and physical health,” Barter says of inmates at Roebourne.

“It’s much hotter in the cells than outside. It is only luck that there have been no heat-related fatalities.”

Human rights lawyer Hannah McGlade, an associate professor at Curtin University, says there is a real risk of death from the temperatures recorded at Roebourne. “The level of disrespect for Aboriginal people is repulsive,” she told The Saturday Paper.

“The state has all the evidence that people are going to die, and they just do not care.”

Barter says that many officials believe people in the Pilbara are used to the heat, due to their upbringing in the region. Many of the inmates, however, are not from the region, often coming from as far south as Noongar land – up to 2000 kilometres from Roebourne and considerably colder.

As one former inmate who still lives in the region says, it shouldn’t matter where you come from, it is still boiling. “I have been up here for 20 years, and I have it [airconditioning] on now. Can’t survive otherwise.”

Mervyn Eades agrees, arguing that the prison is not fit for anybody “regardless of their origin”.

All interviewed believe that the conditions in Roebourne constitute torture. The Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, ratified by Australia in 1989, notes that: “The term ‘torture’ means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person … [including] punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed.”

Greens Senator Dorinda Cox, a Yamatji–Noongar woman, was in Roebourne on January 13. In a statement, she agreed that the treatment inside the prison was torturous and vowed to raise it on the senate floor when federal parliament resumes.

“This state government is breaching people’s human rights, and they’re not meeting the recommendations of the Royal Commission into [Aboriginal] Deaths in Custody … The government needs to address high chronic pre-existing medical and mental health conditions in the prison population. The majority of people will have these issues.”

The Aboriginal Legal Service is considering filing a complaint to the United Nations. They argue that the reason behind the lack of tangible help is the fact that most of the prisoners are Indigenous.

“We believe they are accepting a lower standard for Aboriginal prisoners and that is not acceptable,” Barter says. “That is racial discrimination.”

One recent visitor described the prison as an “overcrowded holding pen and a corral of suffering”. Despite the calls from many to fix the issue, the government remains steadfast in its refusal to allow airconditioning into all the cells, pointing to the cost.

Daniel says he isn’t surprised. “Something has to be done. But we are treated just like another number.” When asked how he is coping with the current Perth heatwave out of prison, he offers a summation of what many in the prison no doubt feel. “Oh, it’s hot, mate, but Roebourne heat is far hotter.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 29, 2022 as "Inside Roebourne".

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Dechlan Brennan is a freelance writer based in Melbourne.

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