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.