Documentary highlights ‘dark and tragic history’ of Roebourne Old Gaol

The former Roebourne Prison, once the second largest prison in Western Australia, has attracted international attention and will be the subject of a documentary.

DISCLAIMER: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that this article contains images of deceased persons.

Barry Godfrey, professor of social justice at the University of Liverpool, and filmmaker Paul Cooke traveled from the UK to Roebourne to record the history of the prison and find out what locals would like to see done with it.

“It has a really dark and tragic history, but it’s also part of a heritage journey,” Prof Godfrey said.

“It’s a community asset. It’s a beautifully constructed building. It’s a lot to a lot of people.”

He said most people are familiar with Rottnest Island, an original prison island for Aborigines that has been turned into a vacation island.

Professor Godfrey says the documentary will explore local opinion on the future of the heritage precinct. (ABC Pilbara: Samantha Goerling)

The Old Regional Gaol was established in 1884 and diverted prisoners from north west WA away from the Rottnest Island Aboriginal Gaol where overcrowding was becoming deadly.

In 1883, the cramped conditions contributed to an influenza epidemic that claimed 59 lives.

Overcrowding later became a problem at Roebourne Goal, where wings designed to accommodate 14 people often held 40.

An old room with a canvas roof, stone walls and wooden doors in a white arch.  Two steel sinks are fixed on a wall.
Overcrowding was often a problem at Old Roebourne Gaol.(Provided)

Market of thousands of kilometers

Part of Professor Godfrey’s research, submitted to the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology, involved studying archival records from Roebourne Prison dating from 1908 to 1961.

He found that most of the Aboriginal people imprisoned at Roebourne had been sentenced by courts in Derby or Wyndham and had been marched to prison on foot.

“But people have been walking steadily from the Kimberley, from all over the Pilbara, all over different parts of Western Australia.”

A group of aboriginal men chained in lion cloth, standing with an aboriginal man wearing pants, shirt, hat, holding a gun.
Aboriginal prisoners with police guards outside Roebourne Gaol in 1896.(Provided: State Library of Western Australia)


But conditions did not improve once they arrived at the prison, with temperatures reaching 50 degrees Celsius in the summer.

“I don’t want to hide it. It was awful,” Professor Godrey said.

“It’s incredibly hot. The food is terrible. The situation is terrible.”

A close up of a stone wall with iron fasteners.
Professor Godfrey says the prisoners were chained at night and tied to the wall. (Provided)

Professor Godfrey said around a quarter of those inside were there for public order offenses – mainly public drunkenness – and almost three quarters were for property offences, often theft or killing of cattle.

“And of course a lot of Aboriginal people were sentenced to death in circumstances that white Europeans were not.

“If you were caught intoxicated as a local Aboriginal person, you could expect to spend time indoors, six to nine months.

“But if you provided them with a drink, you might expect a much lighter sentence.”

The Old Roebourne Jail was closed in 1984, a year after 16-year-old Aboriginal teenager John Pat was beaten by police in Roebourne and later died in a jail cell.

It was one of the deaths considered by the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

Mixed opinions on the heritage district

Prof Godfrey said there were split views locally on what to do with what he described as one of the “most significant cultural and historical landmarks, not just in WA, but in Australia “.

Two men stand outside the former Roebourne Regional Jail with a camera on a tripod
Filmmaker Paul Cooke (left) and Professor Barry Godfrey will make the documentary available to the public. (ABC Pilbara: Samantha Goerling)

“Some people would like it to be an arts center, some people would like to see it demolished. Some people would like to see it as a wellness center to improve the health of local people. And some people, some people wanted it to be reopened as a prison,” he said.

“It’s this contested history. It’s the history of the present.

Professor Godfrey said his research into the former Roebourne prison would be available online when completed.

“We’re going to make the film available for free on YouTube so people can see what we’ve done here and see themselves represented.”