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Australia’s mega prison raises fears for prisoner and rural health

Croakey is closed for summer holidays and will resume publishing in the week of 10 January 2022. In the meantime, we are re-publishing some of our top articles from 2021.

This article was first published on Wednesday, April 14, 2021


Governments often hail the economic benefits that new or expanded prisons bring to regional communities. But what are their health and social impacts?

These issues are investigated as part of Croakey’s new #RuralHealthJustice series, which will publish two feature articles, a CroakeyVoices podcast, and a Twitter Festival over coming weeks – putting a sustained focus on issues being raised this week to mark the 30th anniversary of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

In this feature article launching the series, journalist Linda Doherty explores how Australia’s newest mega jail, the Clarence Correctional Centre, near Grafton in New South Wales is affecting the health and wellbeing of prisoners, their families and the local community.

You can bookmark the series here.


Linda Doherty writes:

The children of prisoners in Australia’s largest jail are reading books written by their parents and hearing the voices of their mums or dads in audio recordings.

The parents first record themselves reading a children’s story and in later workshops they write their own stories or songs – about dinosaurs, penguins and Aboriginal culture – which are compiled into books and sent to their children.

“We have so many stories of kids not being able to put these books down,” said April Long, national operations manager for SHINE for Kids, which runs the Storytime program at Clarence Correctional Centre (CCC) near Grafton in northern New South Wales.

It’s just one way the non-profit organisation is trying to keep the children of prisoners in the privately-run jail connected to their parents, made all the more difficult during COVID-19 restrictions on face-to-face visits and the transfer of women prisoners from jails in Kempsey and western Sydney, up to 600 kilometres away.

Around 60 percent of the 155 women prisoners in CCC have dependent children and one-third are Aboriginal women, according to SHINE for Kids which advocates for the human rights of children with a parent in prison, transports children to jail visits, runs evidence-based parenting, cultural and education courses in 27 jails in NSW, Queensland, Victoria, ACT and Western Australia, and funds tutors for primary school children.

Like many of the 339 recommendations of the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody that have been ignored by governments, recommendation 168 resonates for the parents in the new CCC facility.

It says: “…where possible, an Aboriginal prisoner should be placed in an institution as close as possible to the place of residence of his or her family.”

One of the Storytime books created by parents in prison for their children: supplied by SHINE for Kids

Face-to-face visits have resumed in NSW jails now that COVID-19 community transmission rates are so low, but they are only for 50 minutes at a time, compared with up to two hours before the pandemic.

While video visits are a welcome and long-urged addition, they can’t replace the face-to-face contact, because the majority of children with a parent in prison in Australia are aged five and under, Long said.

“Babies need to smell and touch and so the AVL [audiovisual link] visits don’t work; they need that physical connection,” she said.

“But the biggest challenge we have is that many of the women in Clarence have been transferred from the women’s jails in western Sydney but their kids are still in western Sydney so we can’t actually facilitate contact.”

Long said:

Children of prisoners are the invisible victims of crime. Across Australia they are overlooked by criminal justice systems that fail to see them as rights’ holders.”

Out of sight, out of mind

The historic town of Grafton in the Clarence Valley is famous for its 2,000 jacaranda trees and the mighty Clarence River and is located between the larger regional centres of Coffs Harbour, to the south, and Lismore to the north.

Grafton has had a jail since 1893, but nowhere near the size of the mega Clarence Correctional Centre (CCC), the largest prison built in Australia, which opened last July, with capacity for 1,700 prisoners.

It will be privately run by British company Serco for the next 20 years, under a public private partnership that will see Serco paid $2.6 billion by the NSW Government to operate the facility, located 25 kilometres south east of Grafton, on the lands of the Yaegl and Gumbayngirr peoples.

Around six hours’ drive from Sydney and four hours from Brisbane, it is built on rural land with no public transport links to Grafton.

First announced in 2015 as a 600-bed facility, the Clarence proposal grew like topsy as the NSW Government, which already houses the highest number of prisoners in Australia, allocated $3.8 billion to increase prison bed numbers throughout the state. (Watch the Serco video about the facility’s location, scale and operations).

Aerial view of the Clarence Correctional Centre surrounded by pastoral land: from Serco video

The State Government has hailed the positives for the Grafton area, with local National Party MP Chris Gulaptis saying 600 jobs would be created for the struggling rural economy and $560 million invested in the Clarence Valley region.

But despite claims of the economic benefits to a struggling area, local Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people have raised concerns about the impact of the jail on prisoners and their region.

At a forum in Grafton in November 2019 organised by Yaegl Elder Joyce Clague and her husband, Colin, an expert panel warned of increased pressures on already over-stretched health, housing, and social services due to the influx of families of prisoners, and a lack of post incarceration support for more than 100 prisoners estimated to be released each month.

“One of the broader issues raised was the number of extra people that the community will have to provide services for, with health, housing, welfare and social services already perceived to be over-stretched,” the Clarence Valley Independent reported.

The panel included Bundjalung woman Emeritus Professor Judy Atkinson, an expert in intergenerational trauma and healing, Sisters Inside CEO Debbie Kilroy and Dr Andrew Binns, a GP at Jullums Aboriginal Health Service in Lismore.

Kilroy told Croakey family dislocation is a major issue nationally for women prisoners, particularly in prisons like CCC that are “a long way away from anywhere”.

“Because of COVID, one of the women here [in a Queensland jail] hasn’t seen her children for 17 months. The issues just compound so the women’s mental health becomes worse,” she said.

Dr Alistair Harkness, an expert on rural criminology, said governments around the world often chose rural locations for jails where land was cheaper, to give towns an economic boost and where, to some extent, they were “out of sight, out of mind”.

But the social impacts – like no public transport or pressure on existing health and social services – often resulted in negative flow-on effects for prisoners and their families.

“That then creates a whole lot of other issues for the prisoner: less visitations and excluding them from their families and other support networks that might be enormously beneficial for their rehabilitation,” said Harkness, co-director of the Centre for Rural Criminology at the University of New England.

Photo supplied by SHINE For Kids

SHINE for Kids surveyed families on the impact of restricted visits during the pandemic: 95 percent of respondents said the ban on face-to-face visits had a negative effect on children and 74 percent said the time available for the resumed visits was less than before the pandemic.

This is a particular issue for Aboriginal children, who account for 30 percent of SHINE for Kids’ clients, with their mothers now the fastest growing demographic in Australian jails.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women make up two percent of the Australian population but 34 percent of women behind bars – with an 85 percent increase in incarcerations over the past 20 years slammed as “a national disgrace”, by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner June Oscar.

“We cannot fail to see the direct connection between the fact that 80 percent of Indigenous women in prison are mothers, and the rapidly increasing rates of the removal of our children into out-of-home care,” she has said.

“The rights of our women and the rights of our children are intimately attached.”

Yuin woman and national prisoner activist Vickie Roach said the jailing of Aboriginal mothers destroyed families,