It was an idea that sparked fear in the hearts of Dapto residents.
They worried their town’s name would be tarnished, property values would plummet, their children would not be safe, and escaped criminals would be loose in the streets.
Some – according to a councillor quoted in the Mercury – even went out and bought themselves guns to protect against escaping prisoners.
It was October 1988, and the southern Wollongong town had been shortlisted – along with 16 other places in NSW – as the site of a new maximum security prison.
Corrective Services was selling the proposal with the lure of new jobs and $7 million worth of wages being injected into the community. They argued that property prices around other new jails – such as the one at Parklea – had actually gone up.
But this did little to convince residents.
If a maximum security facility were to be located here, we could be guaranteed publicity whenever it featured in any news item. This would gratuitously reinforce any lingering negative images people might have of the city.Wollongong council planners, 1989
According to coverage, the 1988 jail proposal was for a slice of land at Tallawarra power station.
Wollongong council’s administration at the time warned against allowing the prison to proceed.
“Wollongong is slowly beginning to shake its image as a repository for the undesirable components of urban development: smoke, dust pollution, bad industrial relations, crime and drugs,” then council planner David Winterbottom wrote.
“If a maximum security facility were to be located here, we could be guaranteed publicity whenever it featured in any news item. This would gratuitously reinforce any lingering negative images people might have of the city.”
But Wollongong’s local politicians initially voted not to heed this advice, with then councillor David Campbell saying it would be negligent for the city not to express interest in becoming home to a new prison.
This support did not last long, as residents mobilsed, holding public meetings and signing petitions to convince the council to overturn their decision.
By early 1989, the Labor councillors agreed to withdraw the city’s interest in the jail project.
Thirty years on, not much has changed when it comes to Dapto residents’ sentiments about having a maximum security jail in their backyards.
This time, the site for the proposal has moved to Kembla Grange, to Dapto’s north. But the fears about property prices, safety and the social impacts of becoming a prison town remain at the top of residents’ long list of concerns.
For now, most local politicians are remaining neutral, waiting for more information before declaring their position on the latest jail plan.
Only time will tell if the community furore is enough to kick it out of town again.