Australia: the biggest and most expensive jail sparks concerns in Grafton

Australia’s biggest and most expensive jail is being built near the New South Wales north coast town of Grafton, and locals are increasingly worried about the impact it will have on their region.

The $798m Clarence correctional centre (CCC) will house 1, 700 inmates on more than 90,000 square metres of rural land at Lavadia, south of Grafton. It is the largest prison contract ever awarded, to a consortium called Northern Pathways, which includes Macquarie bank, the NSW government and the security contractor service Serco.

Serco, which will operate the jail when it opens next year, has said the contract is worth $2.6bn over 20 years. It is recruiting 600 workers for the facility. Serco runs Acacia prison in Western Australia as well as the onshore immigration detention centres Yongah Hill and Villawood.

The new jail will house 1,000 maximum security male inmates and 300 maximum security female inmates, with minimum security for another 400 male inmates. Local resident Colin Clague – the husband of revered local Yaegl elder and long-time Aboriginal rights activist Joyce Clague – told Guardian Australia that “simple arithmetic” underpinned community concerns about the jail.

The 600 staff will bring with them, on a conservative estimate, 400 partners and 800 children,” Clague said. “And on a conservative estimate, 500 partners and 1,000 children of prisoners will relocate for the long term to be able to regularly visit their incarcerated partner.”

The pressure will be greatest during school holidays, with hundreds of family groups looking for accommodation, he said. Infrastructure NSW said the jail would deliver jobs to Grafton, as well as “*high quality, efficient, value-for-money correctional services” and “long‐term economic opportunities*”. The jail is necessary to “manage the strong growth” in the state’s prison population, the NSW government has said.

There were 13,475 people in NSW jails in March 2019, about 13% more than five years ago. Almost 30% of them are Indigenous.

Locals said they would rather see money invested in diversion and prevention.

We would rather see drug and alcohol rehabilitation, mental health services, housing, care for dual diagnosis patients and most of all in local Aboriginal community organisations,” former field officer for the Aboriginal legal service Andrew Jeffrey said.

As a community we are used to governments telling us ‘great idea but we don’t have the money’ and yet somehow manage to find endless sums to invest in solutions we know won’t work and which are inconsistent with the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody,” Jeffrey said.

A social impact report said the jail would have “significant negative” effects, including pressure on rental and public housing, hospitals and amenities, an increased demand for police and other emergency services, and a perception of a spike in the local crime rate.

**Grafton has a high Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population, is significantly more disadvantaged compared with other areas in Australia and has lower levels of education, lower incomes and higher unemployment, according to the social impact report prepared for the government by BBC consulting. **

High rates of youth suicide and strained mental health support services are a significant issue for Grafton, of concern to young people, service providers and the broader Grafton community,” the report said. Housing affordability and availability are current issues of concern expressed by the community. “The cumulative impact of an additional major infrastructure project on affordable housing supply in the Grafton area is a key matter for consideration.”

Northern Pathways has set up a community consultation committee to manage local concerns. At its most recent meeting, the committee noted the local council was working with the premier’s department “on a solution to the common concerns about potential social impacts, e.g. housing affordability, bringing criminals into the area etc”.

Infrastructure NSW said jails in similar towns such as Lithgow and Kempsey “have revealed that there is no evidence to suggest that there is a correlation between the centre and an increase in crime rates.” But local Aboriginal man Colin Skinner said “it saddens me to see money pumped into prisons” when the youth suicide rate is “at crisis point.”

Our hospitals are already at capacity, our housing is already at capacity, Aboriginal legal service are being moved from Grafton to Coffs Harbour, 86km away.”

What are we going to do when we see thousands more coming to town?” The mega-prison is due to open in the middle of 2020.

Read full article