The shock announcement that Unanderra prison will shut down next year is a serious blow to local inmates and their families, the region's defence lawyers have said.
Corrections minister Anthony Roberts revealed on Tuesday that four of the state's smallest prisons -Berrima, Unanderra, Ivanhoe and Brewarrina - would be "retired" in early to mid 2020 as new beds became available at existing jails under the NSW Government's $3.8 billion expansion program.
The news comes less than three years after the Unanderra facility, officially called the Illawarra Reintegration Centre, opened to much fanfare, with then-Corrections minister David Elliott touting the centre's focus on preparing inmates for life after prison as "the first of its kind".
The closures have been triggered by the new 1700 bed Clarence Correctional Centre, along with the expansion of existing prisons in Junee, Bathurst, Cessnock, Mid North Coast, Parklea and Windsor.
"[The expansions mean] we will have almost 5,000 beds available in modern, built-for-purpose prisons with greater rehabilitation opportunities," Mr Roberts said.
"They will also create an additional 700 jobs in different locations across the NSW corrections system."
However, Illawarra lawyers have expressed dismay and frustration at the reduction in local services.
"It is disappointing to see that inmates will no longer be able to be housed at Unanderra as of next year," criminal defence lawyer James Howell told the Mercury on Tuesday.
"The benefits of having a local minimum security facility were numerous; it enabled local families of those prisoners to more easily visit their loved ones, it employs local staff and perhaps most importantly, the focus of the centre was on re-integration into society.
"There is endless research that demonstrates that a focus on re-integration and rehabilitation of prisoners produces lower rates of reoffending.
"Having a local facility that focuses on this is something that in my view stood to benefit the community long term by actually rehabilitating local prisoners.
"It is a real shame that the Illawarra will not have the chance to see just how positive those long term benefits would have been."
Fellow defence lawyer Patrick Schmidt said news of the4 shut down had already taken a significant mental toll on some of his clients housed at the centre.
"For those who are familiar with the custodial system, it is merely another move, however for the first-time offenders, they are extremely anxious and unsure," he said.
"All prisons are lonely and isolating places, however Unanderra was able to give Illawarra family members access, especially to those who are less mobile.
"The inmates are concerned that this move away from their family will not only impact their visitation due to distance but also "availability".
"The news of the move is taking a significant mental toll, especially when they are trying to focus on their rehabilitation."
Meanwhile, the Public Service Association had confirmed current Unanderra staff will be found new jobs within the department.
"The Public Service Association has secured an undertaking that all affected employees are guaranteed a job if they wish to continue working with Corrective Services," PSA general secretary Stewart Little said.
"We intend to hold the government to this commitment and ensure that the impact on staff is minimised."