Abandoned Riverbank Prison in Perth, WA

Riverbank was opened in 1960 by the Australian Child Welfare Department (CWD). It was Australia’s first purpose-built maximum security reformatory for boys. Riverbank was to address the two tensions in youth offending: the welfare needs of young offenders, and their offending behaviours.

The CWD aimed to have a ‘reformatory’ effect on the boys committed to Riverbank and staff and programs were chosen with care. Unusually for Western Australia at that time, officers received training before being placed to work at Riverbank. There was a significant emphasis on work-skills training for boys at Riverbank and the CWD’s annual reports throughout the 1960s list the contributions made to other institutions in the State by the work of the boys at Riverbank. By the mid-1970s, Riverbank had an on-site factory and made a range of goods for various charities. School-age boys at Riverbank had lessons supervised by an Education Department teacher. Riverbank’s first computer-aided learning system was introduced in 1986.

The CWD reported in 1968 (Signposts, p.439) that programs at Riverbank also sought to ‘teach more socially acceptable behaviour’ and commented on the ‘paradoxical situation’ of trying to do this while the boys were living in an isolated institution. A series of events that brought community members in for dances, sports, and social evenings was arranged. Socially-acceptable recreation options (such as weightlifting, photography, stamp collecting and badminton) were also introduced.

Between 1975 and 1976, the number of Aboriginal boys admitted to Riverbank grew from 14.5% to over 50% and by 1977, authorities were reporting their concern that many of these young people were being re-admitted.

As in other youth detention facilities in WA, boys who were sent to Riverbank often had a range of complex issues to deal with. By 1975, reports show that boys with alcohol-related offending were routinely admitted and in the 1980s disruptive and violent behaviours were being reported. There were four suicide attempts by young people at Riverbank in the 1992-1993 year.

Riverbank was closed in 1996 and was re-commissioned as an adult prison in 1998.

In 2001, the Office of the Inspector of Custodial Services (OICS) inspected Riverbank, which was then an adult prison. The report gives some insight into the conditions that boys would have experienced at Riverbank, which had held young people only five years earlier. The OICS reported that there ‘unresolved issues relating to the presence of asbestos in the fabric of the main buildings’ at the time of de-commissioning but when it was re-commissioned, Riverbank only underwent limited upgrading and refurbishment.

Although the cells had been refurbished, the structure hadn’t changed much. The 2001 inspection found the cells were smaller than contemporary international standards specified, the windows did not open, were high and small and the opaque glass and security grills prevented anyone looking out. There was an air-conditioning system that had been installed in the 1980s, but it recycled air through corridors, cells and toilets, and did not freshen or cool the facility uniformly. The education centre, which the report said, was largely unchanged from when it was a youth detention facility was described as having a ‘depressing, bunker-like feel to it’.

After its re-commissioning as an adult prison in 1998, Riverbank was reported to house ‘a relatively high proportion of intellectually disabled prisoners’.

As of now, the prison is well-maintained and there are rumours it is being used for police training. There are some very cute llamas in the field next to it which make it even better!

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