By Jane Cowan.
In the Victorian town of Ararat, sandwiched between Ballarat and the Wimmera in the foothills of the Pyrenees mountains, it can seem like every second person you meet either works at the prison or has a family member who does.
While Werribee residents have protested against the decision to build a youth detention centre, in Ararat you are hard pressed to find anyone willing to say a bad word about the jail that has been part of life here for half a century.
Mid-morning the car park of the gleaming facade is brimming with cars that speak to the workforce within.
Aside from the 325 people staffing the jail around the clock, there are armies of contractors, cleaners, administration staff, health workers — all manner of professions entwined one way or another with the Hopkins Correctional Centre.
A low profile
Passing through Ararat you would never know it is home to 696 prisoners, including some of the worst of the worst.
From town, the old buildings of what was once an insane asylum (but now occupied by the Ararat campus of Melbourne Polytechnic) are more prominent.
Driving in on the Western Highway there is not even a sign until you have passed through the main street, and even then you have to look for it. A nondescript blue tab added to a street post.
In the vast expanse of the rural landscape, the prison’s squat buildings barely register.
Between the paddocks of sheep and yellow grasses curing in the sun, the medium security prison cuts a surprisingly low profile.
On a secluded hilltop off a dirt road near the prison lives young mother of four Kristal Clarke. She is unperturbed by having offenders close by.
“There’s never been a concern really. We’ve had people come telling us they’d notify us immediately if anyone had escaped or anything, being so close, and that’s good enough for me to feel safe.”
From here, the prison is hidden in the valley below, obscured behind gum trees and overshadowed by a grand view in the other direction of Mount Langhi Ghiran, known as the “pregnant lady” for its resemblance.
“Being out here you forget that the prison is where it is,” she says.
Not everyone feels the same way.
Some approached kept their thoughts to themselves, not wanting to weigh in.
The ABC did encounter one resident with very different opinions, but that person was unwilling to comment on the record.
A culture of corrections
Look at some of the other industries here and you soon understand the drivers.
A wind farm, an abattoir producing halal meat for export. All kinds of unpleasantness can be tolerated in order to make a living.
The corrections industry is the biggest employer in town.
Plans have just been announced for a new $54 million, 20-bed secure unit for sex offenders and violent criminals regarded as too much of a threat to be managed at Corella Place — with the creation of 100 jobs in the construction phase and 50 permanent positions.
At the bowls club, a cross-section of the town’s mostly menfolk are gathered for a game that tends to hinge more on having a chinwag than competing.
Among them is the affable ex-mayor Jim Dunn.
“I think the jail’s been one of the best institutions that’s arrived here for employment,” he said.
“The Ararat people have accepted it long ago. The benefit we derive out of it as a town makes it very worthwhile. And it doesn’t give us any trouble.”
In Ararat, prisons — or at least secure facilities — are a tradition going back to the 19th century when the asylum known as Aradale was established.
Its J Ward is regarded by many as the town’s original prison.
Prisons, and the employment they bring, are woven into the social fabric. There are families where multiple generations have built careers in the prisons.
The community understands corrections. Prisons have been demystified through direct experience.
Next to the mayor on the bench at the bowls club is a case in point: psychiatric nurse Bill Waterston, who has lived here all his life.
“The prison pays a lot of mortgages. A lot of businesses make a lot of money out of the jail. It’s something Ararat needs, no doubt about that.”
If there’s any unease in Ararat, it’s focused on the residential facility for serious sex offenders, Corella Place, which is not a jail but a non-secure facility housing about 60 ex-inmates who have served their sentences but been deemed too dangerous to live unsupervised in the community.
The Village of the Damned, people call it.
From time to time there are sightings of these characters in town, perhaps in a supermarket aisle, denoted by their ankle monitoring bracelets.
There have been absconders from Corella, and some townspeople concede it is a little disconcerting.
But the last escape from the actual prison was 16 years ago. At that time the prison was bounded by a perimeter fence that has since been replaced by a wall that is considered safer.
Most people here seem to trust the Hopkins Correctional Centre is well and truly secure. And anyway, they figure, the crims would most likely head for the highway and try to get as far away from Ararat as possible.
Tattoo artist Aaron Thomas runs a studio on the main street.
“It’s not a threat as far as I’m concerned, having a prison in the community,” he says.
“I do have kids so it’s a bit daunting knowing there are sex offenders [at Corella]. But the prison itself is not a direct threat to me or my children.”
He once had a customer who came in asking for a bunch of religious tattoos — crucifixes, the Virgin Mary. Said he’d done 30 years in jail. God only knows for what.
But other than that, he has never encountered anyone from Hopkins, though he reckons some do decide to stay local when released.
“There are criminals everywhere so it doesn’t bother us. They could walk past you at any time in any town, you just don’t know about it. The prisoners don’t affect my daily life or anyone that I know.”
Prisons welcome here
Merryl Woolley was born and bred in Ararat and lives within two kilometres of the prison walls.
She is so pro-prison you might suspect she works there. Which she did — once, for a short while, in administration.
“I’ve often walked out there when I’ve been on a get fit kick, you know, walked out to the prison and back. There’s no reason to feel threatened.”
She sees last week’s protests in Werribee as a knee-jerk reaction rooted in a fear of the unknown.
“You’re not going to be inundated by criminals,” she wants to tell them. “You’ll be inundated by prison officers and their families.
“It’s jobs. It’s all about the economy.
“A lot of places wonder why rural towns die. Well if you protest against these types of industries coming to your area it’s gonna die.
“And Ararat did have a stage where, because we were a very government town and we lost a lot of government employment through the railways and Aradale [asylum].
“But thank goodness the prison’s kept going and it’s grown bigger, it’s employed more people and it’s kept this town going. The town’s growing, there’s lots of houses being built.”
If the Werribee community doesn’t want the new youth detention centre, she says, bring it to Ararat.
“There’s a lot of people around here out of work, especially since the closure of the Stawell gold mine. They’ll be able to get jobs.
“Bring it on,” she smiles.