Cessnock jail expansion: rapid-build the new approach for prisons as state tackles overcrowding

IN CHARGE: Governor Richard Heycock at Cessnock jail as it undergoes a massive expansion. Picture: Marina Neil
IN CHARGE: Governor Richard Heycock at Cessnock jail as it undergoes a massive expansion. Picture: Marina Neil

THERE are no cells. Inmates have an interactive TV. Correctional officers are encouraged to be “pro-social” with crooks. And prisoners will go through a rigorous application process for the dubious privilege of being locked up here.

This is the new world of life behind bars.

And it is unfolding in the Hunter as Cessnock jail prepares to take on 400 fresh maximum security prisoners in stage one of the facility’s massive expansion plans.

The Newcastle Herald was given an exclusive tour of the new rapid-build prison ahead of its opening early next year.

While corrective staff are promising a “culture change” for inmates and officers, this is still a maximum security prison.

“Make no mistake about it,” Governor Richard Heycock said.

NEIGHBOURS: The dormitory-style accommodation that will house maximum security inmates.

NEIGHBOURS: The dormitory-style accommodation that will house maximum security inmates.

“They are still maximum security inmates. This is definitely not a soft approach, but they are going to be treated like adults. It’s like raising children – if you want people to behave a certain way, you treat them a certain way.

“For many that is culture change. The previous thinking has been minimal interaction with inmates.”

The most striking difference between the new Hunter Correctional Centre and the existing jail is the lack of physical cells. Inmates are locked up in open plan dormitory-style accommodation across four wings, with each wing containing four “pods” with room for 25 inmates.

It’s like raising children - if you want people to behave a certain way, you treat them a certain way.

Governor Richard Heycock

Inmates go through the standard procedure on arrival, issued with two sheets, one blanket and three sets of greens. They are allowed some photographs and a handful of legal documents in their partitioned room.

PRISON POD: The rapid-build prison design removes the need for traditional cells.

PRISON POD: The rapid-build prison design removes the need for traditional cells.

A mezzanine that overlooks each wing will be guarded around the clock, with the facility’s advanced CCTV security camera system capable of reading the print on a newspaper.

“We’ll be able to respond in seconds,” Mr Heycock said when asked about the potential for disturbances. “There’s not much that can’t be seen here.”

Inside the inmate’s room is, surprisingly, a touch-screen television.

The centrally-controlled screens – which have been tested for breakage with an iron bar – will have access to bank accounts, requests for prison officers and psychological services. 

One day, the Herald was told, the screens will have access to Skype.

VISITORS: The visitation room inside the new facility.

VISITORS: The visitation room inside the new facility.

Inmates are also allowed more time in the yard, but it is lights out at 10pm.

The visitation area is also different, with Mr Heycock pointing out the children’s play area.

“You won’t see any of this anywhere else,” he said.

“The build and the concept itself is very unique to Australia. It’s a very innovative way of approaching corrections.”

He said the prison would appeal to inmates because of its modern features and possibly its additional privileges.

A selection process to determine who would be transferred to Cessnock was still under way, with only those who meet a strict criteria approved for transfer.

There is renewed focus on reforming inmates.

“If you’re going to prison, this is where you want to come,” Mr Heycock said.

“It will allow you to undertake industries, get vocational education, better yourself and give yourself a much better standing to get back out into the community and become a productive member of society.

“But the inmates are here to make a change in their lives, and they’ve got to be able to show they want to make that change.”

PLANS: An overview of the Cessnock jail expansion.

PLANS: An overview of the Cessnock jail expansion.

Corrections Minister David Elliott said the rapid-build design was chosen out of necessity, with a rising inmate population putting strain on the existing prison system. The new Cessnock jail has risen from the ground in 51 weeks, shaving about two years off normal construction time.

“In a perfect world the number of inmates would be going down,” Mr Elliott said. 

“But, unfortunately, they’re not, which is why I’ve been impressed not only by the facility, but the ability to keep to a timetable.”

The jail will have a workforce of 234 people, with roughly 80 new staff.

Mr Heycock said the “hand-picked” correctional officers were in training up until the arrival of the inmates early next year.

“It’s a huge task, but the team I’ve got are very skilled and experienced at what they do,” he said. “On day one, this will be a normal prison”.