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Lack of air conditioning in Roebourne prison cells could breach human rights, says Aboriginal legal service

ABC NEWS logo ABC NEWS 17/01/2022
The Aboriginal Legal Service WA says it is inhumane that air conditioning is not installed at all cells at Roebourne Prison.  (ABC News: Gian De Poloni) © Provided by ABC NEWS The Aboriginal Legal Service WA says it is inhumane that air conditioning is not installed at all cells at Roebourne Prison.  (ABC News: Gian De Poloni)

The Aboriginal Legal Service of Western Australia says the lack of air conditioning at Roebourne Regional Prison could breach international human rights conventions, and it is considering a formal complaint.

Prisoners at Roebourne Regional Prison have been asking for air conditioning to be installed in all cells since 2015.

A report by the Office of the Inspector of Custodial Services released in 2020 recommended the government implement effective climate control in all residential units at the prison.

This recommendation has not been followed.

Last week Roebourne reached 50.5 degrees Celsius. When contacted, the Department of Justice said installing air-conditioning in all residential cells at the prison was not a current infrastructure priority.

ALS WA chief executive Dennis Eggington has called on Premier Mark McGowan to act.

"It's inhumane treatment," he said.

"The Premier should step in to sort this out and with the [budget] surplus should get aircon in there for those prisoners before this escalates to a death."

'It's a form of torture'

Mr Eggington said the extreme heat prevented prisoners from sleeping at night and contributed to mental health problems.

"It's more than a breach of human rights, it's a form of torture just because people are Aboriginal," he said.

The majority of prisoners at Roebourne Regional Prison are Aboriginal.

Mr Eggington said the ALS WA would consider making a complaint to international bodies such as the Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

"I believe it falls within an area which is covered by conventions on torture and inhumane treatment, and to me, that's exactly what's happening," he said.

"I wouldn't even do that to my little puppy at home when it's 50-degree day that little puppy is inside in the air conditioning."

"People are being treated worse than animals."

Australian Green's Senator Dorinda Cox said prisoners not having access to air conditioning was a breach of human rights.

"This is also in breach of the Royal commissions, Deaths in Custody recommendations that are about making sure everyone is afforded their human rights," she said. 

Mr Eggington said he felt the lack of air conditioning as Roebourne Prison was a form of direct racism due to the majority Aboriginal population. 

Fans in every cell

The Premier's office and the Corrective Services Minister Bill Johnston were contacted for an interview but declined.

The Premier's office did not answer specific questions such as why air conditioning was not a priority at Roebourne Regional Prison.

The Department of Justice said it employs several 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.

"There are a limited 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."

Medical staff are also on duty to ensure the prisoners' health and safety.

Back in 2020, former Corrective Services Minister Fran Logan said installing air conditioning in all cells would be very expensive.

He said inmates were allowed to sleep on the verandah or Roebourne regional prison.

"That happens quite a bit because people feel far more comfortable sleeping outside on the verandah than in their cells," he said. 

Mr Logan said back in 2020 that the prison was designed to have maximum airflow.

"The idea of air conditioning the whole of the prison is not only quite expensive, it's also very expensive. It's whether people would appreciate it because there are some people who literally don't like air conditioning."

Mr Eggington said he was calling for the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and the Premier to spend a night in a cell in Roebourne Prison without air conditioning.


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