12 February 2018

When jails fail will a bigger one in Goulburn succeed?

| John Thistleton
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Paul Watson

Paul Watson selling his concept of a new jail model to drive the economy at Goulburn. Photo: John Thistleton.

Tomorrow (Wednesday 14 February), the head of a multi-national consortium proposing a new jail to remedy chronic overcrowding in NSW prisons will urge Goulburn businesses to fight for the project.

Paul Watson will present to Goulburn Chamber of Commerce the economic benefits, including up to 600 jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars worth of additional activity over the next 30 years.

Hearing his pitch for a 2000-inmate jail, that can scale up to 5000 inmates over time, has not changed my view a bigger prison will not solve the alarming over-crowding in NSW jails, or the rising rates of re-offending. I believe the solution is outside prison cells, beginning with addressing poverty and illiteracy at the earliest point of a person’s life.

Nevertheless, the consortium, Southern Infrastructure, is receiving a good hearing in Goulburn.

Mr Watson says since the existing Goulburn Jail was built in the 1850s the town has learned to live with it and won’t mind another one. If the community doesn’t want it, he will walk away from the project and play golf.

Mr Watson says his new model jail will lift prisoners’ self-esteem. Every day they will spend 16 hours outside their cells whereas today they have on average two hours outside. Education and support will enable more of them to take their place in society again, rather than re-offending.

The proponent says his rehabilitation strategy is similar to new jail models at Wellington and Grafton. Grafton will be run by a multi-national consortium, Northern Pathways, which includes the operator, international services company Serco.

Serco will be the operator in Goulburn too. Its track record running Australian detention centres, in my opinion, hardly fits a reformist agenda. But Mr Watson says Serco is the best in the business.

“We are using the same architect (as Grafton’s), our architect and our consortium have worked on something like 43 of the 45 correctional facilities in NSW,” Mr Watson says. “They are state-of-the-art, using world best practices to get the best result for the money spent to get prisoners back into mainstream society.”

If the government feels too dependent on Serco, the proponent can mix and match to suit, including employing Corrective Services personnel. The proposed site comprises 263 hectares where Mr Watson was previously involved in a proposal that never eventuated, to build a warehouse and logistics hub. He says this project stems from a 2016 Justice Department report, ‘Full House’ which estimates NSW will need 18,000 prison beds by 2020. There are now 13,500 prison beds. “It was simple economics. How are they going to get the number of beds they require to accommodate demand?” he says.

The proposed Argyle Correction Centre is not a replacement for the existing Supermax jail in Goulburn. Mr Watson says Supermax has a unique workforce to manage the prisoners. “My feeling is eventually it will run out of its useful life and will have to be replaced or moved or changed.”

Planning approval could happen at the stroke of the Minister’s pen, creating a surplus land bank to co-locate services to help prepare inmates for life outside.

“Most people can see it is a good project, some people always see a negative in a positive, and the idea is to convince them, it is not negative, it is actually positive,’’ says Mr Watson. He previously spent eight years in the Middle East building large projects and says building a jail is a straight forward engineering exercise. The complex bit is enlisting educational and health professionals and other experts. He says these people will be drawn from a wide area, from Wollongong, Canberra, Sydney and overseas.

“I think people in Corrective Services are grossly overloaded with work just to maintain an over-capacity system,” he says. “Prisons are so overcrowded that the energy of good people running them is absorbed just maintaining it.

We are trying to give them that capacity to get ahead of the game in the whole system.”

Mr Watson says his model depends on efficiency from creating an environment which allows people to re-address the issues they have and come back into society. “Yes, people make money out of this, but they have to provide outcomes as well,” he says.

Do you think establishing another correctional facility in Goulburn is a good idea? Share your thoughts with us by commenting below.

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