Roebourne Regional Prison’s $10m aircon fix leaves Prison Officers Union ‘stunned’

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Prison officers have been “flabbergasted” by the cost of installing air conditioning in Western Australia’s hottest prison.

That The WA Government this week announced more than $10 million to put air conditioning in all cells at Roebourne Regional Prisonafter years of pressure from lawyers, human rights campaigners and the state’s independent prison inspector.

But the cost of the installation, which is due to be completed in 2024, has raised some questions about the expenditure.

“We are a bit amazed at the amount of money being spent on air conditioning in Roebourne,” WA Prison Officers Union secretary Andy Smith said.

“We are happy to spend anything that improves infrastructure, but we question whether this sudden release of funds is wrong and misused.

“The jail itself is old, dilapidated and needs more than just air conditioning in the cells, and we have a bigger problem in this state where we’re severely understaffed.”

Smith said staff shortages were having an impact across the state and the government needed to increase pay and improve conditions for guards to attract and retain staff.

Gray-haired man in white shirt at the desk
Smith says regional jails need more money spent on upgrading all facilities.(Supplied: WA Prison Officers Union )

“I think there needs to be a concentration on getting the jails running properly, getting the jails staffed properly and safely and making sure people stay in the job,” Smith said.

“We’re coming up short [safe staffing levels] at every single facility, every single day.”

A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Justice said it allocated capital expenditure across the state according to priority and that Roebourne Regional Prison had sufficient staff to handle prisoners safely and securely.

“Like most industries, the department is monitoring staff attrition in relation to its recruitment program and continues to target regional areas,” a spokesman said.

Image of a red and white sign reading Roebourne Regional Prison
The State Government has been under pressure to improve conditions at Roebourne Regional Prison.(ABC Pilbara: Amelia Searson)

‘Worth the cost’

While the WA Government’s decision to install air conditioning has prompted a mixed reaction from the public, Human Rights Watch researcher Sophie McNeill insisted it was worth the cost.

“Some things you just have to do,” Ms McNeill said.

“You have to meet your basic requirements under international law to treat people humanely.”

“We are a very wealthy state and you can tell a lot about a government by how it treats its most vulnerable, and the people of Roebourne are among the most vulnerable we have in our community.”

A close-up of Sophie with shoulder-length blonde hair, wearing a black blazer and looking directly at the camera.
Ms McNeill says the Government needs to do more to keep people out of prison.(ABC News: Eliza Laschon)

When asked if the money would be better spent on prevention programs to divert people from prison, McNeill said the government should do both.

“They are not mutually exclusive, you can do both and we need to do more to keep people out of our prison systems.

“Roebourne is a very dilapidated old prison, it is far from a resort.

“Unfortunately that’s where some people end up and if they’re inside Roebourne we have to give them the most basic humane level of care.”

Inspector welcomes the decision

The state’s Independent Inspector of Custodial Services Eamon Ryan said his office had inspected Roebourne prison several times since 2003 and was very concerned about the “inhumane conditions with temperatures in the cell” often staying above 32 degrees at night in the summer.

Interior of a cell at Roebourne Regional Prison showing several beds.
The Office of the Inspector of Custodial Services flagged climate control as a problem at Roebourne 20 years ago.(Provided: Office of the Inspector of Custodial Services)

“This is a matter of health and well-being, not just individual comfort,” he said.

“When you consider that the town of Roebourne recorded a record temperature of 50.5 degrees Celsius last summer, this action cannot come soon enough to remedy what was a worrying health hazard for Roebourne’s prisoners.”

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