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The prison riot sparked by climate change

Feb 25, 2020 • 12m 25s

A prison riot sparked by an intense heat wave shows how vulnerable prisoners are to the impacts of extreme weather. Stella Maynard on how climate change is making prisons even more punitive.

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The prison riot sparked by climate change

169 • Feb 25, 2020

The prison riot sparked by climate change

[Theme music]

RUBY:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am.

Last summer Alice Springs had its hottest day on record. Prisoners -- most of them Indigenous and awaiting trial -- were denied cold water or cooling. The conditions led to a riot. Today, Stella Maynard on our punitive prison system and how climate change is making things even worse.

A warning: this episode includes discussion of an Indigenous death in custody.

[Music ends]

STELLA:

It was sundown and a hot day was beginning to turn into an oppressive night. It was the hottest day in Alice Springs history. It had hit a record of forty five point six degrees. But almost every day that month had been above 35 degrees.

RUBY:

Stella Maynard wrote about climate change and the prison system for The Saturday Paper.

STELLA:

In the security tower of the prison, a guard noticed a flash of red across the monitor. People in the prison were starting to take off their shirts and and throw them across the camera lenses. So the prison had no surveillance within the block. The officer called out to guards on the ground to notify them that something was happening inside the block. Officers on the ground were attempting to complete the nightly lockdown procedures. And on this particularly hot day, that meant that they were confining people into their cells and dormitories until morning. There was no air conditioning in the prison, the extraction fans had broken. The water running out of the pipes for drinking was hot because the pipes had heated up, all people had were pedestal fans. People were demanding access to cold water as well as air conditioning. But those negotiations quickly broke down and people were refusing to go back into their rooms, they wanted to stay outside.

RUBY:

What happened next?

STELLA:

By early evening, people started to transform whatever objects were ready at hand into makeshift weapons. So those were fanbases and chairs, food trays, piping. People had begun to damage the property of the prison and were scaling fences. The prison officers were instructed by the Northern Territory authorities to retrieve the riot gear. So that included helmets and shields and extendable batons. They were also instructed to retrieve chemical agents, along with gas masks and gas, grenade launchers and gas shotguns. At around 9:30pm, the prison offices enter the block. They're standing in a riot formation and they use grenades and gas guns.

RUBY:

So were the prisoners harmed? What happened to them?

STELLA:

So during the course of the riot, at least four calls to the security tower were made by people in the Remand Block and they were reporting things like chest pains and requests for an ambulance. But these requests were all immediately stood down or dismissed. Throughout the riot, at least two people in prison there suffered adverse reactions to the chemical agents.

RUBY:

So this riot was a result of the prisoners being denied cold water, and being kept in oppressively hot cells. You lodged a freedom of information request with the Northern Territory government to find out more about these conditions. What did you discover?

STELLA:

The documents that I got do show that 16 men had been crammed into a dormitory built for 8. People had been making repeated requests for ice and water. And as one lawyer told me, guards were at times denying those requests. There's nothing in the documents that indicate that any of the guards were injured.

RUBY:

One thing that struck me in your reporting was the language that was used around prison riots, in particular the term ‘party pack’?

STELLA:

Yeah, this term party packs was in the documents. And I kept just thinking, I've never heard that. What is a party pack? And so I just asked them, the department of Attorney General and Justice, like what is a party pack? And their response was it's a term that's used to refer to chemical agents colloquially, by law enforcement officers. Over a year later and we've just come through another summer of record breaking heat. And there is still a lot of questions that remain about that riot, but also broader questions about the weather and the prison system more generally.

RUBY:

We’ll be back in the moment

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RUBY:

Stella, we're talking about the riot at Alice Springs Correctional Centre last summer and it seems like the underlying cause of that riot was the heat. How is our increasingly hot climate affecting the prison system more broadly?

STELLA:

Yeah. This isn't an isolated issue. For about a year, I've been looking at how climate change and the weather intersects with policing in prisons in Australia. So we're talking about little and often taken for granted things, like the choice to rest or drink cold water and seek shade or breeze or heat refuge or turn on a fan, adjust the temperature of a shower or air conditioning unit and so forth.

RUBY:

So are there rules about how people should be treated in Australian prisons?

STELLA:

Australia has no national temperature standards for people in custody. We've got this pretty vague set of basic standard guidelines that say, you know, prisons need to have meet all the requirements of health in terms of air and heating and ventilation.The cumulative effects of forces like heat are incredibly debilitating and can even be fatal. In 2008, an Aboriginal man called Mr Ward, was killed from heat stroke.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter:

"Mr Ward was being taken to court to face drink driving charge, riding up front his two guards didn’t know that the air conditioning was broken.“

STELLA:

It was reported that he was cooked to death in the back of a prison transport van, which had a faulty air conditioning unit.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter:

“During the 4 hour journey across the outback, the temperature inside the prison van soared to 50 degrees celsius, it was so hot the prisoner suffered burns after collapsing onto the metal floor.”

STELLA:

The Western Australian coroner found both the Department of Corrective Services and the private security transport company had both failed to comply in their duty of care towards Mr Ward.

RUBY:

I want to ask about another case - Kylee Douglas and her son Jason...

STELLA:

So, then there’s Kylee Douglas. She's the mom of a man called Jason who spent 400 days in isolation in the Banksia Hill Juvenile Detention Center in Perth when he was 18 years old. Jason's mom says depriving her son of basic amenities was a form of punishment that he experienced.

Archival Tape -- Kylee Douglas:

“I know when Jason was in the isolation unit in the juvenile prison, they cut the water off to the cells for two weeks as punishment so they had to ask for cups of water.”

STELLA:

So after his time in isolation, Jason requested to be transferred to adult prison to finish the rest of his sentence. There, he was able to purchase a fan to get him through the hot days.

Archival Tape -- Kylee Douglas:

“Lots of times. Jason, had said that the fan that he had was his saving grace, but it's only because he had one and quite often his cellmate wouldn't have one. So they just sit together on the bottom bunk in front of the fan. And the fact that,quite often his cellmate wasn't in a position to be able to buy one. I think it is really disgusting.”

STELLA:

Kylee’s son Jason is now out of prison, but she's in constant contact with boys who are still in the Perth facility. And she says that it's not just the heat. The boys have to beg for blankets in winter. And, then there's also the threat of bushfires.

Archival Tape -- Kylee Douglas:

Not only are they sitting in 38/39/40 degree heat, now, they've got smoke coming and they weren't allowed out of the cells, so they weren't allowed out in the yard while the bush fire was going on.. So they weren’t even able to get fresh air.”

RUBY:

Stella, our summers are only getting hotter. So what do you think could happen if we don’t start to acknowledge the way climate change is affecting prisoners?

STELLA:

I think that the capacity for the prison system to quite seriously harm the health and the well-being of the people it imprisons is only going to intensify when we're talking about weather events getting more extreme, temperatures getting more extreme. Many people I spoke to during my reporting say solutions that focus too narrow on reforming infrastructural issues like installing air conditioners. Those things are unlikely to address the root of the problem. I also spoke to Debbie Kilroy, who's the chief executive of Sisters Inside, which is a support and advocacy group for women in prison. And she really emphasised in her conversation to me that the prison system isn't broken. It's functioning exactly as it's designed. And Debbie Kilroy told me that the riot in Alice Springs was basically unavoidable.

RUBY:

OK. So over a year on from the riot in Alice Springs jail, has anything changed there?

STELLA:

The honest truth is that not much has changed in the wake of the riot. While after the riot, that particular prison has installed some more fans and painted some walls with solar reflective paint. Those broader underlying problems about the weather and environmental conditions persist all across the prison and police system in Australia. The government often wants to tell us that prisons exists for rehabilitation and corrective services. But at its core, the reality is is that they're very punitive places that exist to punish people. And in our conversation together. Debbie Kilroy's final words to me were really clear. She said, how many people have to die in prisons until the community says no more? As a community, we need to start thinking outside the bars and imagining a different response to police in prisons and, you know, going forward. I think that's a pretty good place to start.

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RUBY:

Also in the news today, Australia has raised its travel advice for South Korea and Japan as coronavirus spreads around the world. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade urged Australians travelling to the region to “exercise a high degree of caution due to the heightened risk of coronavirus". The Chief Medical Officer, Brendan Murphy, said he didn’t want to rule anything out when it came to dealing with the outbreak, including a potential South Korea travel ban. And a Queensland coroner has handed down his findings into the deaths of four people at Dreamworld in 2016. The coroner described Dreamworld’s safety systems as “rudimentary at best” and said there had been a “systemic failure by Dreamworld in relation to all aspects of safety”. The coroner is referring Dreamworld’s parent company, Ardent Leisure, for possible prosecution.

I’m Ruby Jones. This is 7am, see ya tomorrow.

A riot caused by the intense summer heat in Alice Springs shows how vulnerable our justice system is to the impacts of extreme weather. Prison reform advocates are calling for change to improve the living conditions inside jails. Stella Maynard on how climate change is impacting the incarcerated.

Guest: Writer for The Saturday Paper Stella Maynard.

Background reading:

Exclusive: Detainees denied cold water, cooling before NT prison riot in The Saturday Paper
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is hosted by Ruby Jones. The show is produced by Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow, Elle Marsh and Michelle Macklem. Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

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169: The prison riot sparked by climate change