Overcrowding in Western Australian prisons has created substandard jail conditions that could lead prisoners to take legal action against the state, a leading rights lawyer says.
Australian Lawyers Alliance director Greg Barns was responding to a damning report on WA's Roebourne Regional Prison in the Pilbara by the state's Inspector of Custodial Services Neil Morgan.
The report, tabled in the WA parliament this week, slammed the prison's cramped, rodent-infested cells, unsafe bunks and lack of air-conditioning in the harsh Pilbara heat.
Mr Morgan's report warned of the "dehumanising effects of overcrowding and inadequate climate control" at the facility.
"The heat can be ferocious, and the conditions pose risks to the health and safety of prisoners, especially as many of them have health problems such as diabetes," it said.
The medium-security jail, which houses largely Aboriginal inmates, had 166 prisoners at the time of Mr Morgan's inspection in September last year, despite being designed to hold only 116.
Mr Barns said the WA government had international human rights obligations and had to follow state and national prison guidelines to ensure a duty of care to prisoners so their physical and mental health was not harmed.
That did not mean a five-star hotel but a relative degree of comfort, including adequate food, clothing, sanitation, health care and living conditions, Mr Barns told AAP on Thursday.
"They have, obviously, been breached quite markedly at Roebourne," he said.
"Breaches of those duties of care can result in prisoners bringing legal action for any damage they suffer as a result of the state's actions or inactions in failing to exercise the appropriate duty of care."
Mr Barns said successful cases had been pursued by prisoners in Australia proving duty of care had been breached.
He said the Roebourne report highlighted the WA government's "punitive policies" which had led to chronic overcrowding and an increase in the number of people held in substandard conditions.
"If governments want to jail people in increasing numbers ... then they have to be prepared to spend money on infrastructure to ensure that people are adequately cared for while they are being detained.
"The solution is to ensure all prisoners are housed in conditions that reflect the obligation of the state not to damage their physical and mental health.
"Prisoners have rights. The right that they lose is the right to liberty but once they're inside the prison they are entitled to be treated with dignity and respect," Mr Barns said.
Corrective Services Minister Terry Redman on Wednesday said that when the government came to power in 2008 it launched a $650 million plan to "address the neglect in our prisons across Western Australia that happened over the previous decade".
He said some of the $650 million would go to works at Roebourne including in the cells to ensure standards were met.
Services had improved at the prison, including programs to help inmates re-enter the community, the minister said.