Prison downgrade traumatises Grafton

Though Grafton has a population of 17,000, the downgrade of the local prison to a transit centre with the loss of over 100 jobs, including nursing positions, sparked two rallies, each attended by up to 4000 people.

Over 4000 nurses, prison officers and community members rallied against job cuts at Grafton jail.

Kassie Packwood, a CNS at Grafton Hospital, says the closure of the prison and the community’s reaction has had the impact of a natural disaster.

“We do natural disasters well here – floods and fires. The reaction has been the same. People have turned up to donate tents, food and furniture. At least the employees know someone cares. The state government doesn’t nor the employer, but at least the community does,” she said.

Twenty prison officer jobs were lost at the prison a few months ago, then, out of the blue, a further 108 job cuts were announced via the media. “On the day I asked a friend who works at the prison about it, she said ‘about what’ – she didn’t know anything,” said Kassie.

The state government announced that the prison was to be downgraded to a transit centre, with the bulk of the prisoners and jobs to be transferred to Cessnock, six hours drive away.

“On current numbers there are 15 to 20 nurses employed by Justice Health. Now they’ll only need two to three.”

The Public Service Association and the Prison Officers’ Association say the facility will be mothballed into a remand facility. It will only hold offenders in the court system. There will only be need for one nurse on a shift for methadone dosing.

Kassie says the prison has been a central employer in Grafton for a long period of time and the consequences of the downgrade are massive, including for the local health system. “There has been a huge response in Grafton. The prison is not just a landmark. People have grown up with second or third generation employment at the prison. There are three critically-trained nurses I know who work at Grafton Hospital, with partners laid off, who will have to leave the town.

“It will have an impact on the hospital. Once partners leave, the nurses will have to follow or be separated. To say it is traumatic is not an understatement. The whole town has been impacted.”

Kassie says there has been plenty of tension in the town, with a picket line outside the prison fronting off with a riot squad. “We were lucky to do a six-day picket and no one got hurt.”

National Party MP Chris Gulaptis attracted some bitter mirth when he had what Grafton’s Daily Examiner described as a “Road to Damascus moment” at one of the rallies.

“Our local MP got up at our first rally and toed the party line. Then he said he stuffed up and should have supported the community, not the government,” Kassie said. She adds that Grafton is unlikely to be the only prison facility on the end of the state government’s fiscal razor.

“I don’t think this is the end. They are looking at cutting other prison jobs throughout the state, which will impact on nursing jobs in Justice Health.”