It is critical that acceptable temperatures are maintained in a custodial environment. Prisoners are an ‘at-risk’ group for temperature related illnesses due in part to their poorer health outcomes:

  • One-third of prisoners report having a chronic health condition;
  • 59 per cent of adult prisoners and 65 per cent of juvenile detainees are affected by mental illness; and
  • A substantial proportion of the prison population are on prescribed medications that increase susceptibility to temperature extremes.

Compounding these health vulnerabilities is a prisoner’s impaired capacity to make behavioural adaptations to mitigate the temperature conditions they face. Outside prison, someone experiencing hot temperatures may seek a cooler environment (e.g. air-conditioned shopping centre), wet their body and clothes with water, and move away from structures that radiate heat. These actions may not be possible for those restricted to a prison cell.

For example, at Roebourne Regional Prison temperatures can reach 50°C. The majority of prisoners are locked overnight in cells that are not air-conditioned and that do not have showers. It is not possible for prisoners to seek a cooler environment. Prisoners get through the night by drinking from water bottles chilled prior to lockup, sleeping on the floor, and splashing themselves with water from sinks. Through the day, towels are draped over windows to reduce sunlight entering the room, though this has the disadvantage of inhibiting any beneficial breezes that may be present. These behavioural adaptations reduce risk to a far lesser extent than what is possible in the wider community.

Creative behavioural adaptations have also been observed in winter as heaters are not a uniform feature of prisoner accommodation and additional clothing and bedding may be subject to limitations in availability. In the 2001 unannounced inspection of Eastern Goldfields Regional Prison it was noted that prisoners attempted to prevent draughts of cold air by covering cracks in the wall with paper mache bonded with their own saliva. At other prisons the use of paper to cover up ventilation vents has been commonly observed, restricting the flow of fresh air into the cell. At Bandyup Women’s Prison, prisoners in the self-care accommodation reported leaving ovens on at maximum temperatures during the day in an effort to warm their house. This Office is aware of two oven doors exploding in the winter of 2014 due to this practice.

Prisoner efforts to achieve comfortable temperatures within the limitations of the prison environment can therefore be creative but are unlikely to be fully effective, and can increase other risks such as restricted air flow. For prisoners who are too old, unwell, or mentally ill to undertake these behavioural adaptations, the prison environment poses an acute risk of temperature related ill-health.

Page last updated: November 13, 2015

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