Two weeks after news broke that the NSW Government has earmarked a massive Kembla Grange site for a possible new maximum security jail, community opposition is in full swing.
More than 3000 residents have signed an online petition to highlight their objection to the prison, while 1300 residents have joined a Facebook page to campaign against it.
Lead by Dapto couple Stephen and Ami Beck, who are building a house in the Kembla Grange Estate which is across the road from the proposed prison site, online campaigners have promised action including 14,000-leaflet letterbox drops, petitions, and even a giant banner strung up on the road into Dapto.
Despite requests from the Facebook page administrators to remain civil, some of the debate has turned “vitriolic and vituperative”.
In particular, Illawarra Parliamentary Secretary Gareth Ward – who announced the prison proposal – has been the target of people’s anger as well as a series of accusatory online flyers.
Mr Ward said he was keen for people to share their opinions about the prison, but was disappointed in the personal attacks on him and other politicians which have been appearing online.
“If I was having meetings behind closed doors about pressing ahead with this without community consultation, then justifiably the community would be very angry,” he said.
“But all I have done is announce consultation and it’s deeply disappointing to see that certain people using social media have turned this into a campaign not focused on the issues, but on individuals.”
He said residents who opposed the prison should “turn that passion into submissions” to Corrective Services NSW, who will be assessing the proposal.
Mr Ward acknowledged that there were genuine concerns held by residents about their homes, but encouraged them to keep an open mind.
“Of course I understand the issues people are raising, but for all those who are saying ‘why don’t you put it in your electorate’, well I’ve already got one in Nowra and we’re actually expanding it at present,” he said.
“I am interested in the economic opportunities that exist here and I want to explore them with the community – we are not going ahead with something without asking the community.”
He also noted that a jail would be more visually appealing and less likely to pollute that an industrial development, which would be permitted on the heavy industry zoned part of the prison-designated land.
“There could be a very significant industrial development built there, that could be far more prominent that a jail,” he said.
“I would encourage people to look at the designs of jails in South Nowra or Grafton – you wouldn’t even know they were there.”