Friday, July 13, 2012

Grafton community fuming over ‘heartless’ gaol downsizing | Via Green Left Weekly

Friday, July 13, 2012

In a move reminiscent of the Tiananmen Square protest, a NSW police convoy consisting of forty Public Order & Riot Squad officers entered Grafton on July 11. It’s mission — to “quell” the peaceful community members of Grafton and the Clarence Valley who were trying to be heard.

The citizens and the Public Sector Association (PSA) had been seeking consultation with the NSW government over a decision that directly impacted on their lives and businesses — the “downsizing” of Grafton Gaol. But the government arrogantly refused to hear.

From the outset this was a community action. Three thousand people attended the first rally on July 4. A larger crowd attended on the 10th. Hundreds of community members — the young, the old, the infirm, mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers — stood and slept on the picket line for six days and five cold nights.

Local businesses and individuals continually supported the picketers by providing firewood, food and drink. Drivers honked their support as they drove by.

The downsizing of Grafton Gaol tears millions of dollars from our local economy, directly affecting the retail sector — with Gaol staff gone, and the loss of prisoner “buy-ups” of thousands of dollars a week. Schools and pre-schools will be affected as 108 staff and their families are unemployed, with the only prospect of work is to follow the Gaol and go out of town.

Ultimately the transport sector will be affected as the local economy slows down, and the requirements for their services with it.

There also is an immeasurable social and human cost. Families will have to travel hundreds of kilometers to visit their imprisoned loved ones, or move closer — taking kids out of school and having to resettle in a new town with all of the fiscal and emotional difficulty that that entails. I heard of grandparents from Glen Innes who would travel down each weekend to visit their grandson in Grafton, who now may never be able to see him again.

Inmate rehabilitation suffers as they are dragged away from family and a familiar situation to be shipped around the countryside like cattle. These people on the inside are not animals. In most cases they are like anyone else in the community, but at a low point in their lives they made bad decisions that ended in them being incarcerated.

The government pays ‘lip-service’ to preventing Aboriginal deaths in custody, but are willing to remove them from Country and People, making them particularly vulnerable. The Black Deaths in Custody Royal Commission of 1987 reported that it was important authorities take into account keeping indigenous people near their families and country.
The July 13 Clarence Valley Daily Examiner spoke to “an 81-year-old Aboriginal auntie fears she will never see her grandson again”.

In the early hours of July 12 picketers received a call that the “trucks were on their way”. Television crews and newspapers were there, not knowing what they were going to witness. Riot Squad Police formed a line as the commander addressed the gathered crowd and asked for calm.

The trucks rolled in as the people of Grafton turned their backs in a peaceful and dignified display of the disgust they felt at the contempt that this government had treated them with.

After the trucks had all entered the prison we silently broke ranks and started dismantling our “tent city” as we contemplated what had just taken place. It was raining.

We gathered at the Gaol exit. At about 7am, Public Order & Riot police formed a line facing the crowd. Further officers were gathered in a group behind the crowd. An armed plain-clothes officer was amongst the crowd. But I had the feeling that none of them wanted to be there.

The commander once again addressed us and asked for calm.

Prison Officers in full uniform formed an ironic “Guard of Honour”. The gates opened and the convoy of prison trucks drove out. We waved goodbye to “our prisoners”, and to the future of our town.

A lone piper played. The guards, for the last time, fell into ranks. They marched proudly toward the front of the Gaol, with the picketers falling in behind them. Beside me a woman was sobbing. The soft rain hid the tears of the others.

The Public Order squad had formed a guard of honour, and applauded as we passed. After a short address at the front gates, the warders fell out. Tears could be held no longer.

Shane O’Brien from the PSA spoke to the gathering, his voice breaking with emotion: “Today, everyone around Australia saw the decency and the dignity that the community of Grafton have. What you've seen today is an attempt by the government to provoke a confrontation, to distract the general public from the reality of the stupidity and heartlessness of the decision that they have made.”

The people of Grafton were certainly dignified throughout, but emotional and physical exhaustion were telling. Some were shell-shocked; some were grieving; some were angry. I felt sick.

The people of Grafton will not forget how they were ignored, betrayed and bullied by the Barry O’Farrell/Andrew Stoner government of NSW. Our Gaol may be gone, but morally we had a victory — revealing O’Farrell for what he is.

From GLW issue 929


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