Please note: this article contains reference to someone who has died.
Just one day after National Close the Gap Day and a week after the announcement of the Yoo-rrook Justice Commission and a Victorian death in custody, the Victorian Government has announced two prison construction projects.
The announcements include the expansion of the Dame Phyllis Frost Centre and the construction of Chisholm Road Prison near Geelong. The projects are two of six prison construction announcements made by the Andrews Government in the last six months.
The Dame Phyllis Frost Centre expansion will see 106 new beds, a new reception, multi-purpose buildings for education, programs and services, and expanded legal and telecourt facilities.
The project is estimated to cost $118.9 million and forms part of the Victorian Government's $1.8 billion budget investment to provide flexible prison capacity, to end cycles of reoffending and decrease incarceration rates.
"We're continuing to make significant investments in the women's correctional system to improve the rehabilitation of offenders, and help break the cycle of re-offending," said Victorian Minister for Corrections Natalie Hutchins.
According to Corrections Victoria, both the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander inmate population and the female inmate population have increased since July 2020. The number of people on remand is also increasing.
The State Government's commitment to expanding Victorian prisons is a huge red flag to local legal services. The Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service (VALS) is concerned about the growing rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander inmates and the potential for another Victorian death in custody.
In January 2020, Yorta Yorta woman Veronica Marie Nelson Walker died in custody at Dame Phyllis Frost Centre. Arrested and charged for shoplifting on December 30, she died in custody on remand three days later.
"More prison cells mean more Aboriginal people in prison and more Aboriginal deaths in custody," said VALS CEO Nerita Waight.
"The Victorian Government will not Close the Gap by giving with one hand and locking us up with the other."
Legal Director at the Human Rights Law Centre, Meena Singh said governments need to direct their attention to closing prisons instead of expanding.
"Prisons don't rehabilitate people or create safer communities, they only serve to compound and exacerbate disadvantage, which is a contributing factor of why people are incarcerated," said Singh.
"Instead of building more and more prisons that harm the people being warehoused in them â" which are disproportionately Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people â" the Victorian Government could be reforming laws that trap people in the prison system, like the punitive bail laws, and be creating jobs that actually help people by investing in community-driven, evidence-based responses."
As of March 12, there were 384 women at Dame Phyllis Frost Centre which has a capacity of 604. Senior Lawyer at Fitzroy Legal Service Karen Fletcher says the Victorian Government needs to rethink the expansion.
"Why does the Government think they need to double the number of women in prison by 2023? This needs a serious rethink," Fletcher said.
"Victoria desperately needs more public housing, support for struggling families to raise their kids and community mental health services.
"Job creation is important but we would prefer to work to build a better, fairer State than to build more prison cells."
NIT contacted Victorian Minister for Corrections Natalie Hutchins and Minister for Aboriginal Affairs Gabrielle Williams for comment but did not receive a response before time of publication.
By Rachael Knowles