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Health services "unfit", prisoners waiting in an outdoor cage, air conditioning delayed until 2024 - new report exposes Roebourne Prison

Giovanni Torre -

The latest inspection of Roebourne Regional Prison has raised concerns about "chronic" staff shortages, the long delay in installing air conditioning, and "unfit" health services - including prisoners waiting in an outdoor cage to get medical attention.

The Office of the Inspector of Custodial Services tabled the report to WA parliament Thursday.

The report found Roebourne is a "mostly well-functioning facility" but remained concerned about a number of key issues.

Inspector of Custodial Services Eamon Ryan welcomed the state government's commitment to remedy one of the main issues highlighted in the inspection - and many previous inspections at Roebourne – the lack of effective climate control in the main prisoner accommodation units, but highlighted the fact upgrade work is unlikely to be completed until mid-2024, meaning prisoners will experience two more summers without air conditioning.

"We just hope the area's extreme heat that can push the mercury above 50° doesn't provoke a serious incident before installation is complete," Mr Ryan said.

The Inspector noted that his Office has been recommending the upgrade since 2003.

"It has never been just about comfort – cell temperatures that sit above 35° before midnight over long summer months quickly become a health threat, especially for older prisoners or those on medication."

In a statement, the Office of the Inspector said there "had been much public attention on the lack of air-conditioning in the mainstream male prisoner accommodation and prisoners complained of sleep deprivation due to the heat".

"Our data loggers showed that overnight heat in the cells was the same as that recorded in 2016 despite reflective paint being applied to the roofs in 2020. Additional shade and demisters were installed in units and bigger ice machines were being installed, but there was little access to the air-conditioned recreation hall. An engineering consultancy firm has since been engaged by the Department to do a feasibility study on retrofitting air-conditioning to prisoner accommodation."

The report found Roebourne prison's health centre infrastructure remained "unfit for purpose" and the waiting area is an outdoor cage exposed to the weather, and that dental services were "entirely inadequate" with long periods where no service was available at all.

The inspection noted that mental health was serviced remotely by telehealth which was manageable "but less than ideal given cultural barriers and limited knowledge of local conditions and services for throughcare, but added that the Psychological Health Service counsellor was locally based and appeared to be well supported by colleagues from other facilities.

The report also raised concerns that the Peer Support Team was beginning to become less effective following the recent loss of the Prison Support Officer and that there was no Aboriginal Visitor Service in the prison.

The report also found that staffing issues remain a long-term problem, with unknown or unexpected absences rising to 17 per cent of all leave, creating many challenges in providing a normal daily regime for both male and female prisoners.

"While Roebourne is not alone in facing staffing shortages and the consequences that can range from restricted recreation, education and training, to curbed visits and less time out of their units, the impact is acute in a regional facility that has no local source of substitute staffing," said Mr Ryan.

The inspection noted that refurbishments of the women's cells, maximum security yard and improvements in the social visits centre were helping a near 40-year-old facility remain fit-for-purpose, and that "by and large, relations between prisoners and staff are positive".

Mr Ryan said various external agencies are providing popular programs and services to prisoners, like the KJ Rangers program for Martu prisoners.

"The Town Work Camp continues to deliver real benefits for the prison and the community. Roebourne can be commended for this work," he said.

The report said, however, that prisoners on remand had fewer opportunities than sentenced prisoners and were ineligible to join offender programs or access the work camp.

"We thought there was a need to better educate prisoners about legal processes and ensure access to appropriate resources," the Office of the Inspector said in a statement.

A WA Department of Justice spokesperson said the Department welcomed the latest report by the Office of the Inspector of

Custodial Services into Roebourne Regional Prison "which highlights improvements across the facility, including good leadership and governance".

"The report noted that despite challenges, the prison's senior management team had become more stable following the appointment of several key positions, including the permanent appointment of the Superintendent in October 2022," they said.

"Concerns raised in the report about effective climate control are being addressed through the $10 million-plus expansion of air-conditioning commencing with the prison's two mainstream accommodation units in 2023/24 after a competitive tender process."

Commissioner for Corrective Services Mike Reynolds said the Department was working hard to address staffing concerns.

"Staff recruitment to all regional facilities remains a priority for the Department. To address this the Department, in conjunction with the Corrective Services Academy has placed an increased focus on recruitment and training of new officers.

"During 2022 the Academy has trained and posted 157 new officers with a pipeline of candidates ready for training in 2023 and a state-wide recruitment campaign about to begin," he said.

The Commissioner added that the Department "will continue to look at ways to improve services and outcomes for staff and all prisoners at Roebourne".

The department spokesperson said Roebourne prison staff were commended for their management of COVID-19 and the associated risk to the prison, and that the department has "supported or supported in principle most of the OICS recommendations".

Greens MP Brad Pettitt, who campaigned for air conditioning at the prison, said the installation was "not complicated" and needed to be done sooner.

"It's a huge inadequacy. For too long Roebourne prison has been out of sight, out of mind. The lack of investment in terms of key infrastructure and air conditioning is completely unacceptable," he said.

"The fact that we could see two more summers in extreme temperatures, despite the evidence that interim measures aren't reallyy working, is unacceptable.

"They need to get on and do it. It's a great frustration that they are not doing what needs to be done. It should be done this financial year so it is ready for the next summer."

The report identified a range of other issues, including:

· "We believe it is time the prison considered using the Aboriginal Interpreting WA service for key interactions with prisoners such as health, education or treatment assessments and counselling.

· The social visits centre was much improved, but COVID-19 restrictions had resulted in caps in visit allowances and visitor numbers. Only a single e-visit terminal was available inside the prison for remote social visits. The work camp had its own e-visit terminal.

· Recreation had suffered greatly due to chronic staff shortages. In the months prior to our inspection there had been limited access to the air-conditioned recreation hall and library, weekend sport on the oval, other organised sport, and special fitness classes for women and elderly prisoners. Chaplaincy was also restricted in contact with prisoners and no church services were available.

· Assessment staff were often redeployed to cover staff absences leading to delays that impacted prisoner access to programs and parole. While program delivery was consistent, 'unmet treatment needs' was one of the reasons cited by the Prisoner Review Board for 35 prisoners from Roebourne who had been denied parole. This was due to short sentences, delays in treatment assessments, refusals to transfer out to do programs (especially women for whom local programs were not offered) and insufficient treatment gains in programs completed. There was often a mismatch between individual learning capacity and the learning needs of the programs being provided.

· There was significant instability in education over recent years and a new team were just starting to get established. There had been little consistency in what was being offered in terms of basic education or training over time. While women had some special programs, there was no opportunity to do an ongoing program of study. A new radio studio was one element in some new possibilities in education and training.

· We thought the women's precinct was rather cramped but still had some good facilities.

· Due to regular staffing shortages, restrictions too often defined the women's experience. They were often confined to their unit with little access to recreation or even to the available resources within their own section, such as the activity donga. This was especially the case when there was no Women's Support Officer which occurred often. Significant change is needed in arrangements for Pilbara women in custody to better meet their needs."

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