Scars of past still visible
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.”
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.