Human rights campaigners say they are “shocked” by a Western Australian government suggestion that hats and hydrolytes could negate the need for air conditioning in an upstate prison.

Longstanding concerns over the welfare of prisoners in the town of Pilbara in Roebourne came to national attention earlier this year after the town recorded a record temperature of 50.5 degrees Celsius.

The Aboriginal Legal Service of WA (ALSWA) has spent years advocating for the installation of air conditioning and has called the state government’s lack of action a “gross violation of human rights and “fundamentally discriminatory”, given the high proportion of inmates who identify as Indigenous.

The frustration felt by advocates has been heightened in recent weeks by an official response from Corrections Minister Bill Johnston.

The lack of air conditioning has drawn renewed attention after a scorching January day of over 50 degrees.(ABC News: Gian De Poloni)

In a letter to ALSWA, obtained by the ABC, Mr Johnston listed the ways Roebourne Regional Prison (RRP) was dealing with ‘thermal discomfort’, including giving prisoners sunscreen, hats wide-brimmed and providing hydrolytic drinks to be purchased from the canteen.

“We had a sense of disbelief,” ALSWA lawyer Alice Barter said after reading the letter.

A woman standing in front of a colorful mural
Alice Barter says prisoners wake up sweating and worrying about their health.(Provided: Alice Barter)

Mr Johnston’s letter said the installation of air conditioning at the RRP was “likely to require significant modernization”.

“At the time of the RRP’s construction in 1984, the Department of Justice assessed the use of air conditioning at the facility against regulatory and community standards at the time,” the letter states.

“In 1984, air conditioning was not standard in the local community or a feature of most homes and it was not included in building plans.

“Compared to other forms of temperature control, air conditioning will likely require significant modernization for efficient operation.”

Sign up for a jail.
The Office of the Custody Inspector will inspect the prison this month.(ABC News: Kendall O’Connor)

Ms Barter said prisoners at Roebourne often felt like they were sleeping in an oven.

“They told me they woke up in a pool of sweat because they sweat so much during the night and it could lead to dehydration,” she said.

“They told me they were worried about their own health and especially the health of the elderly in the prison.

The Minister of Corrections’ letter to ALSWA also lists “climate control initiatives” that have been introduced to the RRP, including ice machines, ice water fountains, shade sails and paint. reducing the heat on the roof of the prison.

A large stainless steel machine that produces ice positioned against a wall.
Ice machines have been installed at Roebourne Regional Jail to manage the heat risk.(Provided: Office of the Child Care Inspector)

Human Rights Watch researcher Sophie McNeill said the answer was not good enough.

Ms McNeill received an almost identical response from the Minister of Corrections after writing to him with her concerns about the welfare of prisoners at the prison.

A close up of Sophie with shoulder length blonde hair, wearing a black blazer looking directly at the camera.
Sophie McNeill is shocked by the WA Government’s response to concerns about the welfare of prisoners.(ABC News: Eliza Laschon)

“I was quite shocked to see these particular quick fixes singled out rather than addressing the key issue we had raised,” she said.

“These are minimum rules for the treatment of prisoners that all governments around the world must establish to ensure that those in their care are treated humanely.

“I think it’s quite alarming to see this issue simply ignored by the government.”

Prison temperature at the center of the next inspection

The WA Prison Independent Watchdog said Roebourne was in the hottest climate zone of any Australian prison and had repeatedly recommended air conditioning in all cells.

“I think the recommendations were always taken seriously, they just didn’t have the motivation, the resources or the commitment to implement effective change,” said Child Care Inspector Eamon Ryan.

“There has certainly been a much greater public interest in this issue and it was spawned by that very hot day in January.

“It certainly made a lot more people lift it more strongly in the prison, and I’m talking about the prisoners, but also some staff members.”

A man in a suit standing in front of a wood paneled wall
Eamon Ryan will visit Roebourne Regional Jail this week.(Provided: Office of the Child Care Inspector)

Mr Ryan said while not all staff were supportive, many saw the impact the heat had on inmates.

“If you have a bad night’s sleep, you’re grumpy the next day,” he said.

The Office of the Custody Inspector will be in Roebourne this week to carry out another routine inspection of the prison.

An inspection report is expected to be tabled in the state legislature in July 2022.