Record high temperatures in Roebourne have led to renewed calls for the town’s ageing prison to be replaced, or at least air conditioned.

Mervyn Eades, head of prisoner support group Ngalla Maya, told the National Indigenous Times that Roebourne prison has “the worst living conditions” he has seen in a prison.

“Those buildings are that old, what needs to happen – if they want to keep locking people up – they need to build a new prison, an up to date prison that is culturally appropriate.

“I went into Roebourne prison 18 months ago after a death in custody. Those are the worst living conditions I have ever seen in a prison, and I have been in and out of prison since I was young.

“There are no windows, just bars on every cell. Every prison in Perth has windows. In Roebourne it’s just bars, and with the heat – whatever it is outside, it is worse inside. It was 50 degrees the other day I swear that in those cells it would have been pushing 60.

“Those conditions would have been no different to Mr Ward being locked in that prison van. It would have been 8 to 10 degrees hotter in the cells than outside,” he said.

Eades said it was easy for dangerous animals and insects to get into the prison.

“There was a big write-up about snakes and spiders and other animals getting inside the prison. Anything can come in there between the bars… It most definitely is like a medieval prison. It is a human hot box, and in the winter it’s a cold box,” he said.

Sophie McNeill of Human Rights Watch told the National Indigenous Times it is “deeply shameful” that cells at Roebourne Prison “still don’t have air conditioning, nearly six years after the Prison Inspector called for air con to be installed in all cells”.

“Western Australia is a wealthy state that had a record budget surplus this year. How in good conscience can the Department continue to refuse to install this? The McGowan government should fix this immediately, these prisoners at Roebourne cannot continue to be treated in this manner,” she said after the town saw 50.5 degrees C last week.

On 15 January the temperature soared again, this time to 49.7 C.

The town of Roebourne shot to notoriety in 1983 when police beat to death John Pat, aged 16, sparking an outcry and the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths In Custody. Now, more than 30 years after that inquiry issued 339 recommendations, most of them remain unimplemented.

Aboriginal Legal Services WA acting director Alice Barter told WA Today that the conditions in the medium-security prison, which accommodates both men and women, would not be tolerated if the majority of people in the facility were not Aboriginal.

Ms Barter noted that the Department of Justice’s response to a recommendation in the 2020 Office of the Inspector of Custodial Services report on the facility, stated one of its heat mitigation controls was to “retain prisoners at Roebourne who are from and are acclimatised to the local conditions of the region” while “prisoners not from the region are prioritised for transfer”.

“The department has said prisoners in the region are acclimatised to the conditions… they are accepting a lower standard for Aboriginal prisoners and that is not acceptable… and therefore racially discriminatory,” she said. “We also say there is a significant health risk and that those conditions breach international human rights law.”

Western Australia’s Inspector of Custodial Services, Eamon Ryan, told the National Indigenous Times that the last two inspection reports by his office had recommended that the state government “take steps to either air condition the prison or take effective action to mitigate the heat situation”.

“We did a review, before my time, on the thermal conditions in the prison and at times the night temperature was upwards of 30 degrees, pretty intolerable in a concrete and steel room with the door closed and limited air flow, with only a desk fan. That was from 2015.

“We have been concerned about it for some time. It’s not just a comfort thing; it is a genuine health issue and a genuine welfare issue as well.

“In these conditions it does not meet the standard [of humane treatment]. In a modern prison, even in remote areas, the standard would be that there is adequate ventilation and adequate temperature control,” he said.

Ryan said that given the challenges of retrofitting the prison, replacing it with a new better-designed facility designed facility was the alternative.

He said addressing the problem is “not beyond the realms of possibility; it just requires the funding and commitment”.

“We are going up for inspection in late March and I have no doubt we will make a similar recommendation. One man told me on my last visit that for two to three months a year they have prickly heat rash,” he said.

Ryan said that while the recent 50.5 degree day drew renewed attention to the issue, “it is unbearably hot in there three months a year”.

“Even at 41 degrees, which happens quite often, it is ridiculously hot. Some might say people from the region are used to it, but I can guarantee you that if two men in the Pilbara are in a house, in that heat, they are not going to go into the smallest room in the house and close the door.

“The reality is Pilbara men, and particularly Aboriginal men, don’t complain, they will tell us ‘It gets really hot in here, but what can we do?’. They just tolerate it – but it’s not good enough,” he said.

Senator for Western Australia Dorinda Cox, a Yamatji-Noongar woman, told the National Indigenous Times that climate change would continue to make conditions in the prison intolerable and a health risk.

“We are continuing to break records in terms of heat waves. We are breaching people’s human rights, and we are not meeting the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Deaths in Custody… You have a minimum standard where you have temperatures in this range whether it is hospital, schools, aged care facilities or prisons,” she said.

A spokesperson from the office of WA’s Minister for Corrective Services told the National Indigenous Times that the Department of Justice “employs a number of effective controls to manage the heat risk across the state”.

“At Roebourne, this includes fans in every cell, air-conditioning 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,” they said.

“The prison ensures all planned recreational activities are closely supervised. There are a number of air-conditioned cells available for prisoners with medical conditions and air-conditioned transition cells for Section 95 prisoners who undertake full-day outdoor physical activities.

“Cell temperatures are monitored throughout the day in Unit 1 and 2. Medical staff are on duty at the prison to ensure the prisoners’ health and safety.”

By Giovanni Torre