Scars of past still vis­i­ble

Pilbara News - - News - Ali­cia Per­era

Cheery signs for the Roe­bourne Vis­i­tors Cen­tre are to­day what wel­come peo­ple to the stern stone build­ings that once served as Roe­bourne Re­gional Prison, the old gaol.

Once in­side, the scars of the past are all too vis­i­ble in the mot­tled plas­ter of the walls and mark­ings on the floor where iron rings were once fixed.

As early as the 1880s, renowned colo­nial ar­chi­tect Ge­orge Tem­ple Pool de­signed for Roe­bourne a pur­pose-built law and or­der precinct, in­clud­ing a jail as well as po­lice sta­tion and court­house.

The largest, oc­tag­o­nal block was for in­dige­nous in­mates, the vast ma­jor­ity of whom were there for steal­ing or killing live­stock or breach­ing harsh labour laws.

It was de­signed as a small panop­ti­con which al­lowed a war­den to stand in the cen­tral yard and observe pris­on­ers through grilles in their doors.

The sec­ond, smaller block built for white and Asian in­mates is a stark con­trast, with its in­di­vid­ual cells and open­ing to a court­yard.

A par­tic­u­larly dis­tinc­tive fea­ture of old North West jails, in­clud­ing Roe­bourne’s, was the use of neck chains on in­dige­nous pris­on­ers un­til the 1940s, long af­ter they had been done away with for non-in­dige­nous res­i­dents.

Roe­bourne Vis­i­tors Cen­tre staff mem­ber and for­mer man­ager Ruth El­lis said the chains, which in a 1904 Royal Com­mis­sion in­quiry into prison con­di­tions were re­ported to have no autho­ri­sa­tion, were to re­duce the fears of guards.

“They didn’t have a lot of war­dens for the amount of pris­on­ers, so they were very scared of a mass break­out.”

The jail was closed in 1924 af­ter the clo­sure of Cos­sack port fa­cil­i­ties led to a de­cline in the Roe­bourne pop­u­la­tion.

But it got a short sec­ond shot at life in the 1970s when a boost in num­bers in the North West cre­ated de­mand for an­other north­ern prison.

Roe­bourne res­i­dent Mar­shall Smith worked at the jail as a so­cial worker for sev­eral years be­fore it closed for good in 1984, when the new re­gional prison was es­tab­lished.

“It is def­i­nitely a com­plex his­tory,” he said. “Even when I went back there just to visit … for me as an in­dige­nous per­son I looked at those pho­tos of my peo­ple in chains and you can’t help but feel their pain. I had to walk out.”

Pic­tures: Ali­cia Per­era

Roe­bourne Vis­i­tors Cen­tre staff mem­ber Ruth El­lis in­side a cell of the old jail, now a mu­seum of town his­tory. In­set: The rear block of Roe­bourne old gaol.

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