West Kimberley Regional Prison (WKRP) opened in late 2012. Built in Derby, the prison’s ethos was to have an innovative Aboriginal focus. It aimed to keep Kimberley Aboriginal people in country with family, and uphold cultural and kinship responsibilities. It also aimed to develop prisoners’ independent living skills and to improve their chances of not returning to prison. This inspection, conducted at the end of March, was our second inspection of the prison.
Our first (2014) inspection found WKRP had achieved what could reasonably have been expected. In many respects it had exceeded expectations. Its founding Superintendent Mr Mike McFarlane was a Noongar Aboriginal man who had held senior roles in NT Corrections. He had overseen the development of an excellent balance of safety, security, and purposeful activity. The conditions and regime for prisoners were good, and were aligned with WKRP’s unique philosophy. Prisoners were being given positive rehabilitative opportunities and were positively grasping them. However, Mr McFarlane left in 2016 for a position in Queensland.
Visits to the prison during 2016 and 2017 raised some concerns for us and the prison was under some strain. We were particularly concerned to find many prisoners regularly sleeping on mattresses on the floor. The fact that Kimberley Aboriginal people are generally compliant and want to stay in country is no excuse.
WKRP is modelled on prisoners living in shared ‘houses’. With increased numbers, we were concerned the houses had become increasingly crowded. Coupled with a growing number of remandees, staff shortages, and the lack of a life-skills officer, we were concerned the prison’s successful self-care model was under serious threat.
We had observed increasing chronic short staffing for both prison officer and vocational support officers (VSOs), which was undermining many of the prison’s previous strengths, including participation in education, work, training, and recreation. Offender programs were not meeting demand and were not well-matched to prisoners’ needs. The prison had generally been safe and secure, but staff were concerned about the impact of short staffing.
Importantly, given the ethos of WKRP, prisoners felt there was less opportunity to express their culture, and that staff did not always understand or respect it. There were fewer opportunities for positive supervised interaction between men and women, previously an area of excellent practice. We were also increasingly concerned about head office refusals to approve applications to attend funerals, despite the prison supporting attendance for compelling kinship and cultural reasons.