Culturally appropriate prison philosophy has been eroded over time

West Kimberley Regional Prison (WKRP) was opened in 2012 with an innovative Aboriginal focus informed by traditional Kimberley Aboriginal culture. The unique architecture and community-style share households had been designed to develop independent living skills and self-determination, but in 2023, crowding elsewhere in the custodial estate pushed the prisoner population from 150 to 230. Our pre-inspection surveys suggested falling standards in quality of life, personal safety and access to meaningful employment. Even Aboriginal cultural support had fallen away.

Effective management of custodial services across the Kimberley is complex and requires comprehensive forward planning. Since 2012 the Western Australia State Government and the Department of Justice have considered expanding Kimberley custodial capacity by building a new prison near Broome. At the time of this inspection a functional brief had still not been specified and a location had not been chosen.

Without support, WKRP faced existential threat

In November 2022, WKRP celebrated its 10-year anniversary. But despite the impressive design, structural damage across the site had been accelerated by inferior build quality and the harsh Kimberley climate. Structural and mechanical repairs in the Kimberley were complex and costly, and there was a real risk that critical maintenance issues could render parts of the prison unusable.

Unlike Broome, Derby is a small community with limited retail, recreation, and tourism opportunities. WKRP had difficulty attracting and retaining its full complement of custodial staff. Fortunately, unplanned absence levels were relatively low, and few staff members were on workers’ compensation leave. But staffing pressures disrupted the daily regime and prisoners’ access to meaningful activity. Also, shortages in primary health care staff limited the prison’s capacity to address the heightened health risk faced by the majority Kimberly Aboriginal prisoner population.

Custodial operations in the Kimberley are complex

Despite WKRP’s philosophical expectation that Kimberley prisoners be ‘on-Country’, the limited bed capacity across the north required frequent inter-prison transfers. That caused severe overcrowding at Broome Regional Prison. Even so, during the inspection occupancy of the work camp at Wyndham was just 30%. WKRP staff questioned the security classification system. Trialling a modified system of security classifications for Kimberley prisoners could alleviate population pressure and increase reintegration opportunities.

Kimberley Aboriginal community members were coming to WKRP with predictable health needs. Unstable primary health staffing threatened the provision of comprehensive and coordinated medical and allied healthcare.

Although dental services were limited, basic mental health services were provided on-site by experienced Mental Health and Psychological Health Services staff. For those at risk of self-harm, the WKRP Prisoner Risk Assessment Group was operating well to support their needs.

Prison management had responded to the absence of Aboriginal Visitor Service staff on site by funding the design and construction of yarning circles. That was a positive symbolic recognition of traditional Aboriginal practice and provided a focus for structured group interaction. We recognised that elements of WKRP’s foundational philosophy and design were still evident.

Everyday life did not reflect the WKRP philosophy 

Apart from the male maximum security Unit 3, all prisoners lived in self-care houses at a level of accommodation equalling the top hierarchy at other prisons. That reduced the incentives available to encourage positive behaviour. And with 14 self-care houses, the single Life Skills Officer struggled to support the self-care model.

The value of recreation had been recognised in the prison’s design. The main compound, accessed by male prisoners in units 1 and 2, had a central football oval, an open-sided covered hard court for basketball and volleyball, and three large activity rooms used for library, music rehearsal and indoor activities. But since a policy of minimal gender mixing was put in place, women were less fortunate, with no organised active recreation, and no time on the oval.

The WKRP philosophy focused on custodial proximity to land and family, but the vast Kimberley distances made in-person visits difficult, particularly for family from the East Kimberley. Prisoners relied on the prison telephone system to stay in touch. Despite broken phones and limited access, the prisoner survey suggested telephone contact with family had risen, and was equal to state average.

As prisoners progress towards release, their needs change

For male prisoners, education services had improved. The five full-time positions at the Education Centre were filled, and North Regional TAFE delivered training in Rural Operations and Construction for men, and Horticulture for women. The Centre provided excellent infrastructure but was only accessible for men. With just 17 female prisoners in Unit 4 at the time of the inspection, regular education and training activities for them was limited to art and horticulture.

For many prisoners, limited experience with meaningful employment makes the transition to freedom difficult. Contrary to WKRP’s original philosophy, almost half the prisoners were not working, or only given unit-based jobs requiring little time or skill. WKRP struggled to recruit and retain Vocational and Support Officers, without whom workplaces were closed.

Women’s access to therapeutic and voluntary programs was also limited compared to men. Nine voluntary programs were offered on site, covering personal development, leadership, family issues, parenting, re-entry life skills, cooking classes, and an alcohol & drug program (AOD). Men could join all nine, but women were restricted to AOD and cooking.

At WKRP, Centacare was the lead re-entry service provider. The contract covered re-entry and accommodation services, and parenting advice and support services. The prison’s Transitional Manager referred prisoners in scope to Centacare. He also helped prisoners obtain identification documents, provided referrals to Mowanjum Driver Training for learner’s permits, and to the Department of Transport for motor vehicle licenses. The five-year re-entry service provider contracts were due to expire in April 2023. In October 2023 the Department was still gathering evidence and opinion to inform decisions about new contracts.

Page last updated: June 24, 2024
154: Inspection of West Kimberley Regional Prison