Work Camps are a watershed in Western Australian corrections. They involve up to 12 minimum-security prisoners living in the heart of a community in a farm house or sometimes old Government works building, and undertaking a variety of environmental and community projects.
Prisoners are not restrained by fences or electronic devices. Other than the Ministrys strict classification guidelines, there are no "offence-type" restrictions on offenders placed in a work camp, which means sex offenders and others convicted of violent crimes can be eligible.
A comprehensive public relations campaign turned around all the potential negatives relating to the expansion of the work camp program in WA. Rather than fighting the initiative, a process whereby communities were actively bidding for the opportunity to host a prisoner work camp was created.
Through awareness-raising and thorough community consultation, backed by sound desk and field research, the campaign both internal and external achieved outstanding results, exceeding its goals and objectives.
There has been overwhelming support from around <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />Western Australia and nine communities will now have the benefits of mobile and fixed prisoner work camp teams. The pool of prisoners eligible for work camp placement has been doubled and staff are keen to be involved.
The decision to establish a network of prisoner work camps in <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />Western Australia could have been a public relations disaster. Perhaps more importantly, without community, prison officer and prisoner support, it could not have got off the ground.
When the State Government announced the decision to establish four new work camps in addition to two pilot camps which had been operating for 12 and 18 months respectively, the public relations challenge had only just begun.
The announcement was made following a year when the community was particularly sensitive about law and order issues, and particularly about prisons. There had been a record 87 escapes from minimum-security prisons, seven deaths in custody and the Casuarina Prison Riot of Christmas Day 1998 a shocking reminder of how violent prisoners can become.
The decision to establish work camps involved taking prisoners out of jail and establishing them in a non-secure environment in the midst of regional and rural communities. While the Ministry was already operating two successful pilot camps at Badgingarra and Walpole, experience with other prisoner-related issues had shown that success in one suburb or region did not guarantee acceptance in another. Two pilot camps was a vastly different proposition to a network of established work camps.
People who were fully accepting of success elsewhere and were supportive of the concept of prisoner rehabilitation, did not necessarily support having prisoners close to their own home.
Public fear campaigns largely based on the perceived risk of escape and notions of having "unsavoury prison visitors" wandering through their streets had previously dogged several efforts to establish new prisons. In some instances, public opposition had caused planned initiatives to be aborted.
Many prison officers were nervous about the work camp concept. It involved living away from home, living with and working alongside prisoners and maintaining control in an unregulated regime without close support or supervision from the prison.
For prisoners, the work camp experience would be hard work. It involved living away from the rest of the prison population often in accommodation that was of a lesser standard than at the prison. The work itself involved long hours of physical labour. For long-term prisoners, the relative freedoms of a work camp could also be unsettling.
The challenge was to turn around this potential public relations disaster and ensure that the four new camps were successfully established with full acceptance from communities, prison officers and prisoners and the wider Western Australian community.
<?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />Western Australia is only the second State to introduce prisoner work camps.
In developing this communication and consultation strategy, the Ministry of Justices research fell into four areas.
- Desk research of other Ministry of Justice prison projects:
Reaction to the announcement that a new womens minimum-security prison would be established in suburban Bassendean;
Reaction to a proposal to establish a new minimum-security prison in the precinct of the existing Canning Vale maximum-security prison;
Reaction to the announcement that a juvenile detention centre would be established at Rangeview in suburban Murdoch;
Response to the announcement of plans to build a 750-bed prison in the township of Wooroloo.
- Research of the interstate work camp experience:
- Interviews with people involved in the Queensland work camp project. This lead to the brokering of contact between WA community representatives and representatives in Queensland.
- WA Municipal Association and individual shires:
- Interviews were conducted with representatives of the WA Municipal Association and a sample of selected individual shires.
- Careful analysis of the work camp experience in the two pilot projects at Walpole and Badgingarra:
- Interviews on site at Walpole including prisoners, prison officers, other staff and members of the community reference group established at the commencement of the project;
- Interviews with Ministry of Justice project managers;
- Review of all reports.
The research indicated:
- Many regional communities were desperate to complete long-awaited community projects;
- Their available volunteer labour was dwindling and typical grass-roots community initiatives such as landscaping and beautification were not getting done;
- There was strong interest in taking advantage of free prisoner labour, which could help appeal to, and help overcome opposition from, those with prejudices or fears about having criminals in their neighbourhood;
- That regional people take pride in their communities and are keen to enhance their community facilities;
- There is a healthy sense of rivalry between regional communities;
- There is a strong community spirit and willingness to take a role in community activities;
- Regional people have credibility in dealing with people from other regional communities;
- The economic downturn in many regions had prompted people to look at new ways of keeping their community viable;
- The benefits of communities participating in prisoner rehabilitation would not be a strong selling point during the community consultation phase;
- Peoples strongest concerns related to fear of the unknown about prisoners and the prison system.
Key target publics were:
- Local shires, councillors and communities;
- Local residents in general vicinity of proposed camp sites;
- Key community representatives community spirited opinion leaders;
- Local community groups;
- WA Municipal Association;
- Members of Parliament;
- News media;
- WA Prison Officers <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />Union;
- Prison Officers;
- Minimum-security prisoners.
The strategy was to:
- Influence the process.
Both the Attorney General and executives within the Ministry of Justice had to be convinced that location selection by consultation was the best option and that Public Affairs should be involved with decision-making from the outset.
It would have been traditional bureaucratic process to decide on locations for the work camps and then commence public relations activity.
Several risks were identified in the Public Affairs analysis of this proposed operational methodology:
- High risk of leaks to the local media before negotiations were resolved;
- High risk of public outrage at the perception of "secret" talks between the local government authority and the Ministry;
- High risk of the Ministry losing control of the information dissemination process;
- High risk of the communities making negative and lasting judgements about the proposal without having the benefit of full information; and
- High risk of aggravating widespread community fear of crime and criminals.
The advice from Public Affairs was to alter that process and establish one where enough interest was created throughout regional <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />Western Australia, to inspire bids for the right to host prisoner work camps.
Essentially the challenge was to make work camps highly sought-after opportunities rather than an imposition on a community.
The decision to change the methodology to a consultation-based program was fundamental to the success of the work camps project.
In doing this, there were a number of additional and long-term benefits for the program. (Please refer results)
- Remain pro-active throughout;
- Focus on the "Whats in it for you" message;
- Promote the benefits of work camps in order to generate interest among regional communities;
- Create a sense of competition among regional communities for the right to host a work camp;
- Make the entire process transparent so there could be no perceptions of secret negotiations;
- Promote the concept of work camps as an opportunity for prisoners to repay their debt to society;
- Engender interest among prison officers and prisoners;
- Manage other issues as they arose.
A recognised tactic employed as part of the strategy was to continually use the media to highlight the interest shown by other regional communities.
This strategy proved effective in fostering competition between communities and focussing on the positives that other communities had identified.
- Ministerial launches and announcements:
- launch of work camp expansion and call for expressions of interest;
- announcement of short-listed communities;
- announcement of successful communities.
- Tailored media releases;
- Ongoing media liaison and pro-active publicity;
- Media tour to <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />Walpole;
- Direct mail to all Members of Parliament and the WA Municipal Association;
- Features articles in stakeholder magazine WA Justice.
- Western Australian Communities
- Direct mail - letters and information materials to all local government authorities and key community service groups State-wide;
- Tailored information brochures with submission forms;
- Direct Ministry of Justice phone line for any queries;
- Shortlisted Communities
- Publicised regional tours to visit and assess each short-listed community and host public meetings;
- Public meetings materials:
- Information brochure;
- Powerpoint presentation;
- Video presentation;
- Display board panels;
- Oral presentation from the Work Camps Project Manager;
- Oral presentation from representatives of Walpole and Badgingarra communities
- Question and Answer Handout.
- Tailored media releases;
- Ongoing media liaison and media interviews in each town;
- Endorsements from Walpole and Badgingarra communities;
- Prison Officers
- Tailored information brochure;
- Video presentation;
- Endorsements from prison officers working at Walpole and Badgingarra;
- Articles in staff publications Inside Out and Just Us.
- Tailored information brochure;
- Tailored video presentation;
- Endorsements from prisoners involved in the pilot projects;
The campaign was evaluated against the original goals and objectives and a number of additional results and benefits were recorded as part of the evaluation process.
Objectives 1, 2, 3
- Raise awareness that the Ministry was seeking to liaise with communities that may be suitable for a work camp;
- Gain the support of interested communities and councils to facilitate the development of new camps throughout the State;
- Glean ideas for suitable community projects for new work camps.
- During the consultation phase more than 100 inquiries were received from communities across the State, confirming widespread awareness and interest. 83 communities requested application forms with detailed criteria. The campaign resulted in hundreds of suggestions for suitable community projects from 28 different communities which submitted formal expressions of interest.
- Raise awareness in the broad community regarding the success of the work camps and the "restorative justice" benefits they provide to local communities:
- Substantial positive media coverage around the State;
- Good responses to the public meetings in short-listed communities;
- A focus from community members at public meetings on the importance of helping prisoners to repay their debt to society;
- An absence of political opposition.
- Increase the pool of prisoners eligible to participate in work camps.
Despite stringent requirements, the number of eligible prisoners interested in a work camp placement has more than doubled in comparison to the previous year. Interviews indicate they respect and enjoy the opportunity.
- Increase the pool of prison officers to manage the work camps.
There have been no difficulties in staffing the new work camps and interviews show prison officers are relishing the opportunity.
- Continue to promote work camps, their good work and their successes through the media and direct liaison with relevant communities.
Ongoing positive media coverage state wide. There have been more than 122 reports on the work camps initiative and the overwhelming majority of the coverage has been positive.
- Communities hosting camps acknowledge they have an important role to play in rehabilitating offenders and feedback indicates they value their contribution to the criminal justice system;
- Prison officers and prisoners feel completely welcomed by the communities;
- Prisoners from the existing work camps have been offered jobs by locals to take up upon release;
- Elderly community members asked for prisoners to come and assist them with household maintenance;
- Prisoners and prison officers are invited to join local sporting activities;
- Opportunities for mobile prisoner work camps were identified;
- A positive response to the concept of prisoner work camps throughout <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />Western Australia has been achieved;
- A database of communities and work-projects that may be suitable for work camps in the future has been established;
- The level of support has meant the Ministry has been able to make a commitment that work camps will not be established in communities where they are not well supported.