CESSNOCK will bear the brunt of the state’s rapidly growing prison population, despite community opposition and questions over its ability to cope with a quarter of the state’s new inmates.
A fiery community meeting on Sunday drew the rare concession from the government that a near-doubling of the prison was planned “cart before the horse” – a sign 1000 new inmates will be forced on Cessnock even if police are stretched and the hospital is too old.
Corrective Services NSW northern custodial director Glen Scholes told the crowd that inmates “ran over the top of everything” because there was nowhere for them to go.
Mr Scholes said there had been a 13 per cent increase in the prison population in the past two years alone.
“Yes, it would have been good for these things to be in place and considered,” Mr Scholes said, answering a question that raised concerns about the hospital and police numbers.
“[But] the reality is the prison numbers run over the top of everything, so it’s sort of cart before the horse.
“We do need infrastructure to make it work, and that’s something we’ve got to follow through as part of this process.”
Residents left the meeting angry, upset and displaying a sense of hopelessness.
“It breaks your heart,” long-term resident Patricia Goodwin told the Newcastle Herald after the forum.
One said the government was “begging forgiveness instead of asking permission”, while another demanded the outcry be heard and the project delayed.
Get angry or else: MP
The prison boss’s concession that Cessnock would need new infrastructure under a massively bigger jail is the firepower Labor needed to strengthen its demands.
Cessnock MP Clayton Barr said a new prison must come “hand in hand” with a bigger police station and a purpose-built wing in the hospital.
Mr Barr also wants new public housing and beefed-up social services for the families of prisoners, who typically come from troubled backgrounds.
“We as a community have to raise our voices on this – we need to get angry,” he said. “If we don’t, it will get forced through and we won’t get anything – except 1000 new prisoners.”
Asked after the meeting if his comments were an endorsement of the community’s demands, Mr Scholes said he was treading a fine line between public servant and politician, but eventually agreed more police and a better hospital would be a “positive outcome” for all.
“If the state government sees fit … it would certainly be a positive outcome for Cessnock,” he said.
“That’s one of the good things about the process of consultation – we ensure that all parties and their concerns are heard.”
Cessnock jail general manager David Mumford agreed that public infrastructure needed to be boosted, but also said there were many positives in the expansion.
Mr Mumford pointed to the hundreds of jobs to be advertised – 450 during construction and 430 new permanent positions – as a win for the community.
The meeting earlier drew a guarantee that the majority of those jobs would be advertised locally.
“There’s going to be incredible opportunities for Cessnock,” Mr Mumford told the Herald.
But the promise of jobs was cold comfort to residents opposed to the plan.
They said it came at the expense of livability, community well-being and even democracy.
The meeting erupted in fury when residents were told planning rules had been relaxed just weeks before the expansion was announced.
On that note, Hunter MP Joel Fitzgibbon weighed in and said: “It’s a disgrace”.