Acacia Prison inmates riot in ‘protracted incident’ after COVID-19 control measures deployed

Prisoners have rioted at a privately-run jail in Western Australia where COVID-19 quarantine measures were deployed after two detainees tested positive last week.

Key points:

  • Prisoners lit fires, climbed onto the roof and damaged windows in the riot
  • The “protracted” riot was brought under control about 9:45pm last night
  • Around 100 prisoners were involved, with one person taken to hospital

Authorities battled to extinguish fires yesterday afternoon at Acacia Prison, about 50 kilometres east of Perth, as prisoners wandered the Serco-operated complex.

Aerial vision showed flames and smoke pouring out of buildings and more than a dozen detainees on the roof.

The Department of Justice described it as a “protracted incident” and said prisoners damaged windows and infrastructure, including setting fire to items in their cells.

Items were scattered around the grounds, and one detainee could be seen passing what appeared to be bedding to another and onto the roof. 

A specialist prison riot squad and firefighters were called in to help control the riot, with at least half a dozen fire trucks dispatched to the prison.

St John Ambulance said a man aged in his 20s was taken to hospital.

Around 100 prisoners ‘refused to comply’

In a statement released overnight, the department said about 20 inmates from one block of the prison were involved in the initial incident, beginning around 4:00pm yesterday.

An aerial view of the prison - flames can be seen inside a building.
Damage from the riot is still being assessed, authorities say.(ABC News)

The department said the riot was brought under control around 9:45pm by Corrective Services’ Special Operations Group (SOG), Acacia Prison staff and WA Police, supported by the Department of Fire and Emergency Services.

“SOG officers were deployed after attempts to negotiate with the prisoners were unsuccessful,” the department said in a statement.

“At the peak of the incident, a group of prisoners broke away and moved to the industries area of another block within the prison, lighting fires and causing further damage.

“It’s estimated around a hundred prisoners refused to comply with directions from staff at some point during the disturbance.”

Union blames ‘shocking staffing levels’

The WA Prison Officers’ Union (WAPOU) says prisoners at Acacia were “one fence away from freedom” during the riot, which it said began when inmates were being moved to a different unit.

It said several prison officers went to hospital for treatment, but the department said no staff members were injured.

Prisoners are scattered around.
The Department of Justice says around 100 inmates refused to comply with directions.(ABC News)

“Prisoners managed to get their hands on tools, set multiple fires and get within one fence away from freedom,” WAPOU secretary Andy Smith said.

“The aftermath of this riot will be that Acacia will be even more desperately short-staffed today than it was yesterday when prisoners ended up on the roof and setting fires in cells.

“WAPOU has repeatedly warned that Acacia remains horrendously understaffed and that greatly diminishes the ability to quell incidents of the magnitude.

“This situation was entirely predictable due to shocking staffing levels and poor morale, and has now hit boiling point.

“Serco needs to stop putting profits ahead of safety and ensure there is enough staff to control the number of prisoners.”

Damage still being assessed

The department said there was no threat to the broader community.

“An investigation into the criminal offences committed by prisoners during the incident will be conducted along with an assessment of the damage,” the department said.

Acacia Prison is the first WA facility to record COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic.

Wide shot of buildings in Acacia Prison, with barbed wire fences in the foreground and bushland behind the prison.
Several staff and inmates at Acacia Prison tested positive for COVID-19 last week.(ABC News: Richard Glover)

On Tuesday, a custodial officer fell ill and was diagnosed with the virus, then on Friday two prisoners and another four staff also tested positive.

According to a statement from the department on Saturday, management put all other prisoners at the impacted unit into quarantine.

The prison also implemented “further controls including limiting other movements around the facility”.

Riot in a different unit to COVID cases

A spokeswoman for the department told the ABC on Sunday the incident had unfolded in a different unit to the one in which prisoners had tested positive to COVID.

She said the incident was confined to one block and the other seven were in lockdown.

But she denied the prison had been in a general lockdown following the detection of the positive COVID-19 cases.

Do you know more about this story? Contact Rebecca Trigger

WA Shadow Police Minister Peter Collier had this week called on the state government to improve vaccination rates in prisons.

Figures provided to parliament this week revealed just 11.7 per cent of prisoners had received three doses.

Just over 53 per cent were double vaccinated.

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