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

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, with children often taken into out-of-home care “and then it’s an almost impossible task to get them back, which breaks up families and destroys cultural connections”.

“Locking up more and more Aboriginal women is another Stolen Generations using incarceration to achieve it,” she said.

Adding to community pressures

From the outside: the Clarence Correctional Centre. Photo by Linda Doherty

Barkindji man Paul Dutton, who has lived in Grafton for 19 years, told Croakey that families of prisoners moving to the town to be near the jail would find “a lack of services, no housing, no public transport to the jail, and nothing from government”.

“I just shook my head when I heard there was no public transport; how are people going to get there?”

Public transport was meant to be addressed before the jail opened, according to the 2017 Environmental Impact Statement for the New Grafton Correctional Centre, which said: “Northern Pathways [the consortium of Serco, John Laing and John Holland Group] will work with Transport for NSW and local bus operators to further investigate the potential for bus services to the facility prior to the date for opening in 2020.”

A Transport for NSW spokesman said the department was currently “inviting the Grafton community to have their say” on bus service improvements but acknowledged that a key theme from previous stakeholder feedback was “connectivity to key destinations, including the hospital and the new Clarence Correctional Centre”. Any improvements, including new bus routes, would not be introduced until next year.

Adam Cameron, Manager – Environment, Development & Strategic Planning at Clarence Valley Council, said the lack of public transport in the Clarence Valley was a challenge faced by much of regional NSW, as was housing pressure.

Cameron told Croakey COVID-19 had seen metropolitan residents opt for a tree-change in Grafton and new infrastructure like the Pacific Highway motorway and the new Grafton bridge “has resulted in more people moving here, placing more pressure on housing”.

Housing crisis

Tracey Mackie, CEO of Momentum Collective – which provides community services and community housing across the Northern Rivers region – said Grafton was no exception to the affordable housing “crisis” in Australia.

She said there are currently 283 people waiting for government housing and 11 on the priority list, with five to 10 years the average wait for a property.

“Any major infrastructure project in a region comes with a need to increase the supply of housing and also adequate community services,” Mackie said.

Momentum Collective has submitted a tender to the NSW Government for funding to increase the supply of social and affordable housing in Grafton.

“Momentum would welcome a coordinated response to monitor and respond to the community’s need for robust and appropriate health, disability, mental health and services and programs for youth,” Mackie said. “There are some great services available in Grafton that could benefit from increased resources to adequately respond to the need in the community.”

Last month Serco was advertising for a range of healthcare positions within the jail: nurse practitioner, clinical team leader, nurse unit manager, registered nurses, general practitioner, registered nurse specialist (chronic disease mental health).

“That’s quite a list,” said Dr Andrew Binns, a GP in Lismore for 40 years, who warned the Grafton forum in 2019 that it would be difficult to recruit healthcare staff due to existing shortages in rural areas.

Binns recently visited the jail. “I was impressed with the infrastructure including the emergency department and met with lead health staff,” he said. But he was told recruitment of GPs has been difficult issue, as it is in Grafton.

Risks in prisons-for-profit

Jail abolitionist and activist Vickie Roach has heard it all before about the benefits of prisons to regional areas. “It’s a money-making exercise; jobs, jobs, jobs, all that bullshit,” she said. “Soon all this country will be is holes in the ground with jails.”

Debbie Kilroy said the Grafton community “was sold a pup” and, based on her experience at another Serco-run jail, she warned of deteriorating prisoner health.

Kilroy’s organisation works with women prisoners at Southern Queensland Correctional Centre at Gatton, in the Lockyer Valley Region near Brisbane. It is one of two private Queensland prisons which will revert back into public hands in June after a government inquiry found the number of assaults on staff was higher at privately-run jails due to lower staff numbers.

“State-run facilities have more staff, and more staff means more safety,” Queensland Corrective Services Minister Mark Ryan said.

Kilroy said there was often not enough staff at the Gatton jail to take women prisoners to specialist appointments “so we actually see women’s health deteriorate very quickly”.

“If we look at private prisons and Serco’s history across the world, they don’t employ enough staff to actually do what needs to be done to support women and all the aspects of their lives, particularly health.”

Brett Collins, coordinator of prisoner advocacy organisation Justice Action, said Serco had a chequered history running Australia’s immigration detention centres and in private jails in Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom.

“Serco has a long history here and in other countries of being really casual in its care of prisoners and Clarence won’t be any different,” he told Croakey.

Serco defended its care in a statement to Croakey, saying there were extensive medical services at Clarence Correctional Centre.

The jail had an on-site medical clinic that provided primary care health services to prisoners, including psychology, psychiatry, physiotherapy, dentistry, optometry, radiology and pharmacological services, with onsite GPs also providing additional mental health support and drug and alcohol counselling, it said.

“Custodial patients made up less than 0.5 percent of total emergency presentations to Grafton Base Hospital in 2020,” the statement said.

The head of an Aboriginal organisation in Grafton, who did not want to be named, said health and rehabilitation services inside the jail were “apparently good”.

“But the big issue we’re hearing is there’s virtually no service outside the [prison] door, virtually nothing for post-release. This is a big topic of discussion.”

The NSW/ACT Aboriginal Legal Service policy is for all First Nations’ people released from prisons to be provided “culturally safe social, medical, mental health support, welfare, income support, and other help to allow them to properly re-enter their communities after the trauma of prison”.

Serco said it worked closely with community health and other services as inmates approached the end of their sentence “to ensure they are supported post-release”.

Better approaches and places

One issue that has long frustrated GPs across the country with public or private jails is the lack of proper handover of clinical records, by consent, when a prisoner leaves jail. The current system is chaotic and it’s difficult for GPs to get access to medical records, according to Dr Andrew Binns who has long worked with post-release prisoners.

“Ideally, this should happen whenever an inmate is released back to their community and then connect with a GP at an Aboriginal Medical Service or mainstream general practice,” he said.

“This would not only be helpful for individuals but may lead to overall lower recidivism rates,” he said, noting that Serco receives financial incentives to reduce recidivism at Clarence Correctional Centre.

“To achieve this will come at a cost – but doesn’t everything?”

As to the future, Billy Walker, CEO of the Yaegl Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation, can see potential commercial opportunities from the jail for his mob, as well as education and training for all of the prisoners.

“But I’m really against jails because I believe trauma and healing centres are a better idea,” he said.

He used to teach culture and heritage to young people at Balund-a, a cattle farm in the region that provides a six-month diversionary program for prisoners before release.

“I’d like to see more diversionary places like Balund-a and healing centres out in the bush. There’s no better place than to have it out on Country,” he said.

View on a prison, across the road from Clarence Correctional Centre. Photo: Linda Doherty

The Commonwealth, Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications has provided funding for the Croakey Health Media #RuralHealthJustice series through the Public Interest News Gathering Program (PING) grant program.

The PING Program was set up in 2020 to support regional broadcasters and publishers to maintain or increase their production and distribution of public interest journalism in regional Australia during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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