100s of titles, one news app for just $10 a month.
Dive Deeper:
‘Our ancestors are in the rocks’: Australian gas project threatens ancient carvings – and emissions blowout
Custodians of petroglyphs in remote north-west say Woodside’s $12bn ‘carbon bomb’ spells disaster for culture and climate
Australian election 2022: from anti-vaxxers to revolutionaries, what do the minor parties running for the Senate stand for?
Know what’s behind the innocent-sounding names of more than 30 minor and micro parties running this election, and find out…
Perth's smoke haze explained — turns out, it's also related to the cooler weather
You've probably noticed the thick blanket of smoke that seems to be enveloping Perth most mornings. Here's why it's happening.
From lock-up to sobering up: Victoria grapples with public drunkenness reform
Andrews government has delayed reform amid need to find compromise between police and Indigenous advocacy groups
One subscription that gives you access to news from hundreds of sites
Revealed: the ‘carbon bombs’ set to trigger catastrophic climate breakdown
Exclusive: Oil and gas majors are planning scores of vast projects that threaten to shatter the 1.5C climate goal. If…
Leaders face off in final debate – as it happened
This blog is now closed
Get all your news in one place
Latest National news:
Win a seven-night Arabian Peninsular cruise for two
Imagine that dream holiday costing you absolutely nothing - well, that could be a possibility with our latest cruise competition.
Read news from The Economist, FT, Bloomberg and more, with one subscription
Learn More
The sickie, the stalker and the signature: Tatts one seriously dedicated Joey fan
"I'm stoked, although I think Joey was a bit mortified."
Australia federal election 2022 live: Scott Morrison and Anthony Albanese to make final pitches; phone voting expanded for people with Covid
Follow all the day’s developments
Australian election 2022 voting guide: everything you need to know, including how to vote if you have Covid
When is election day? Who can I vote for? Where can I vote near me? How do I vote if…
One dead, another critical after horror head-on crash
Police investigating a fatal head-on crash on Hindmarsh Drive.
From analysis to good news, read the world’s best news in one place
Who should I vote for? Guide to seven key policies in the 2022 Australian federal election where Labor and Coalition differ
Real differences between Scott Morrison and Anthony Albanese have emerged across a range of election policies. To help you decide…
Battle for trains derailed
A failed Supreme Court bid to keep historic and heritage-listed railway items at North Rothbury 'shocks' trains enthusiast

This picture tells the story of a prison that was – and remains – medieval for Aboriginal inmates

By Paul Daley
Roebourne prison circa 1895-1901
‘What’s the difference between being an Indigenous inmate of Roebourne regional prison in 1900 and today?’ Photograph: State Library WA

The more things change for many Australians the more they stay shamefully the same for Indigenous people in Western Australia’s ill-named “justice system” – particularly if they happen to be jailed at Roebourne in the Pilbara.

While searching through the archives of the State Library of Western Australia, historian Chris Owen came across a telling photograph of Aboriginal inmates of the original Roebourne regional prison, which closed in 1923 (and briefly reopened from 1975 to 1984). If a picture could tell the story of a prison system that was – and remains – medieval for Indigenous prisoners, this one, taken between about 1890 and 1900, might be it.

The male prisoners are seen in the picture chained together by their necks. Judging from the tribal ligatures on the upper bodies of several, they were living traditionally before their arrest. Those chained at the neck include two boys – one perhaps 14, the other maybe 11, 10 or younger. They are also chained to their wheelbarrows. The wheelbarrow (together with the pick and shovel) was the symbol of the white invader’s progress. But the barrow was also a human yoke for the WA Black man who dug the roads, built the rich pastoralists’ fences and helped quarry the minerals that built the white man’s wealth from the bounty of stolen Aboriginal land.

Anyone from the prime minister down who laughably asserts that slavery didn’t exist in Australia should look carefully at this photograph and many others besides. The great myth of Australian pioneering is that Australia was built on the backs of white miners and pastoralist’s sheep. The truth, at least in the west, is it was built on the enslaved and broken backs of Aboriginal people.

Just three of the chained Aboriginal males have been afforded hats to resist the stifling sun in notoriously baking Roebourne where, this summer, the temperature climbed above 50C (hold that thought). Every non-Indigenous person in the photo wears a hat.

Prof Barry Godfrey, who is making a documentary about the original Roebourne prison and what ought become of it, says Aboriginal prisoners were marched there on the chain and on foot across vast distances.

“People would be marched for hundreds of miles, thousands of kilometres, in hot, really hot, terrible conditions, often chained with the guards on horseback,” Godfrey, a social justice academic at the University of Liverpool, recently told ABC Pilbara.

“People routinely marched from the Kimberley, from all over the Pilbara, all over different parts of Western Australia.”

There was little relief from the searing heat upon arrival at the Roebourne jail; the prisoners were kept tethered to the walls in chains at night while the temperatures inside often reached 50C in summer.

“I don’t want to gloss it. It was horrendous,” Godfrey said.

He was talking about jail conditions a century or more ago. And yet ( … the more things stay the same) he may well have been talking about the newer Roebourne prison, which opened in 1984.

Ninety percent of the inmates at that prison are Indigenous. All routinely complain about the appalling physical and mental health impacts of the extreme heat inside – not least earlier this year when Roebourne reached a record 50.5C.

The Aboriginal Legal Service of Western Australia has lobbied successive state governments to install air-conditioning in all cells. It argues correctly that the appalling situation within the prison – where inmates can’t sleep or function during the day because of the extreme heat – presents a “flagrant breach of human rights” and is “inherently discriminatory” given the high proportion of Indigenous inmates.

ABC Pilbara, which has commendably prosecuted the open-shut case for fully air-conditioning the prison, published parts of a letter from the WA corrective services minister Bill Johnston to the legal service. In it Johnston reportedly writes that prison authorities manage “thermal discomfort” (if there is a more artful euphemism for extreme heat stress and dangerous dehydration, let’s see it!) by a variety of means including sunscreen and wide-brimmed hats – and by making electrolyte drinks available to buy at the prison canteen. Generous, that. There are also ice machines throughout the prison, and desktop fans in cells – which, you’d have to think, would do little to combat night-time temperatures of 38-plus degrees.

“At the time that RRP [Roebourne regional prison] was constructed in 1984, the Department of Justice assessed the use of air conditioning at the facility against the regulatory and community standards at the time,” the minister’s letter reportedly said.

“In 1984 air conditioning was not the standard in the local community or a feature of most homes and it was not included in the building plans. Relative to other forms of temperature control, air conditioning is likely to require extensive retrofitting for efficient operation.”

So … it’s apparently too expensive, then.

At this point it pays to step back and think a little about the Pilbara and whose land it really is, and the amount of wealth its natural resources generate for WA and the federal government.

According to the WA Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development: “The Pilbara is the state’s mining powerhouse and makes a significant contribution to the national wealth. Its iron ore and liquefied natural gas industries are valued at over $70bn, representing more than 70% of mineral and energy production in Western Australia.”

That’s $70bn! And yet successive governments have refused to spend a fraction of it on air-conditioning the jail where it send its Indigenous prisoners to swelter and suffer.

Owen, an honorary research fellow at the University of WA, has done more than any other (not least through his remarkable book Every Mother’s Son is Guilty) to highlight how WA profited from the enforced labour of Indigenous people in the pastoral and mining industries, and the obscene and inhumane cruelty against them. The historian points to the historical symmetry of that photo of Black men in chains outside the old jail and the conditions in today’s version.

“Yes, for too many Aboriginal people here it is a matter of the more things stay the same. There is the same punitive attitude in the justice system and the same abuses of human rights,” Owen says.

It all begs a simple question: what’s the difference between being an Indigenous inmate of Roebourne prison in 1900 and today?

The answer: only 122 years.

What is inkl?
The world’s most important news, from 100+ trusted global sources, in one place.
Morning Edition
Your daily
news overview

Morning Edition ensures you start your day well informed.

No paywalls, no clickbait, no ads
Enjoy beautiful reading

Content is only half the story. The world's best news experience is free from distraction: ad-free, clickbait-free, and beautifully designed.

Expert Curation
The news you need to know

Stories are ranked by proprietary algorithms based on importance and curated by real news journalists to ensure that you receive the most important stories as they break.

Dive Deeper:
‘Our ancestors are in the rocks’: Australian gas project threatens ancient carvings – and emissions blowout
Custodians of petroglyphs in remote north-west say Woodside’s $12bn ‘carbon bomb’ spells disaster for culture and climate
Australian election 2022: from anti-vaxxers to revolutionaries, what do the minor parties running for the Senate stand for?
Know what’s behind the innocent-sounding names of more than 30 minor and micro parties running this election, and find out…
Perth's smoke haze explained — turns out, it's also related to the cooler weather
You've probably noticed the thick blanket of smoke that seems to be enveloping Perth most mornings. Here's why it's happening.
From lock-up to sobering up: Victoria grapples with public drunkenness reform
Andrews government has delayed reform amid need to find compromise between police and Indigenous advocacy groups
One subscription that gives you access to news from hundreds of sites
Revealed: the ‘carbon bombs’ set to trigger catastrophic climate breakdown
Exclusive: Oil and gas majors are planning scores of vast projects that threaten to shatter the 1.5C climate goal. If…
Leaders face off in final debate – as it happened
This blog is now closed
Get all your news in one place