Never before has a prison been designed with the community deciding the name, style of boundary fence or where access roads should be placed. But, with the development of Boronia Pre-release Centre for Women, that is exactly what has happened.
The Department of Justice was so intent on involving the local community in the prison’s development, that it invited input at every stage of the project.
Meanwhile, the Department had to convince nearby residents that having a minimum-security prison, where inmates left the grounds to undertake outside work experience, was positive for the community.
Making the challenge greater was the fact that immediate neighbours included two large retirement villages, a university and residential area.
Key communication structures were set up to involve the local community in the project’s planning and development, which were supported by an extensive public relations program.
The result is a revolutionary prison that sees prisoners interacting with the community on a daily basis. One year after opening, more than 28 community members are registered as volunteers within Boronia and prisoners have provided more than 3,500 hours’ community work for local organisations. Meaningful community input continues to guide operations and partnerships with the local community continue to florish.
A project to redevelop a minimum-security prison, located in an inner-city suburb, was always going to need effective public relations management.
The location alone, 10km from the Perth CBD, had the potential to make the development a public relations nightmare. The prison directly borders two large retirement villages with more than 1,000 residents, a university, a theological college and a residential area.
In addition, this was to be no normal prison. The Department of Justice was planning a prison based on a totally new approach, not seen before in Australia.
The radical new approach involved developing the prison accommodation in residential-style buildings and integrating the prison with the community in an effort to prepare prisoners for release. Prisoners would be allowed to leave prison grounds to access community services and to undertake community work in neighbouring areas
Therefore, while the Boronia development presented a number of potential issues, it also created an opportunity to develop strong relationships with the community.
Research undertaken included:
Review of communication for other prison developments – In particular, the strategy for the proposed Pyrton Prison development in Eden Hill. While the development was eventually called off due to Aboriginal heritage issues, important public relations issues were highlighted.
Meetings with Nyandi Prison management (which operated on part of the site until Boronia’s opening) – These helped the public affairs team gauge the prison’s relationships with the community and helped identify key publics, including neighbours.
Meetings with key neighbours – Held with Swan Village of Care, Tandara Nursing Home, Curtin University, Uniting Church Homes, Town of Victoria Park, Activ Industries and Baptist Theological Society. These helped in understanding the motivations and possible reactions of key publics.
Review of communication structures of similar prisons in the USA and Canada –
The public affairs team drew from the experiences of similiar overseas facilities. This included Canada’s Edmonton Institution for Women, which operated an effective Community Advisory Group seen as a model for Perth.
Analysis of political environment – An analysis of the area’s political environment revealed a political hotbed. The prison was located in the Premier’s electorate and the Town of Victoria Park’s deputy mayor had stood as an Opposition candidate in the previous election. Furthermore, with council elections looming, the development could potentially be used as a political issue.
Publics were identified as people or groups who would be affected by, or could have an affect on, the prison redevelopment. Many were identified following the initial research and meetings with key neighbours.
As the project progressed, the project team kept detailed records about publics and individuals – for example, if they actively supported or opposed the project and what communication/consultation had occurred to date.
The following groups had the ability to provide valuable feedback and were important potential partners for community work and outreach initiatives.
Direct neighbours – Residents of the two neighbouring retirement villages and residents in streets bordering the prison site. They had the potential to provide the greatest feedback and input into the planning process (some have apartments overlooking the site) but also the potential to become the greatest opponents to the development.
Other local residents – Greater Victoria Park, Bentley, St James and Waterford communities would had an interest in the development but not be affected to the same extent as direct neighbours.
Local community groups – Safer WA Victoria Park, Chamber of Commerce, Victoria Park Community Association, Victoria Park Residents and Ratepayers Association, Lions, Curtin University, Technology Park and local businesses, as well as police.
Media (metropolitan and local) – Both community newspapers and metropolitan print and electronic media. Due to the prison’s intended community focus, special attention was paid to the local media.
Local Member of Parliament – Most of the residents affected by the development lived in Premier Geoff Gallop’s Victoria Park electorate. Given the Premier’s power to alter or even cease the project, extensive ongoing communication was essential.
Planning authorities – Had the ability to influence the development’s progress and included the Town of Victoria Park, City of Canning and WA Planning Commission.
Special interest groups – Special interest groups presented the Department with an enormous opportunity to champion the development publicly. The groups included:
- Office of Womens’ Interests and responsible minister
- Department of Indigenous Affairs and responsible minister
- Aboriginal groups
- Justice/ prisoner interest groups
- Female members of parliament from all political parties
The overall communication approach was to include the local community in the project from the very beginning.
The strategy focused on creating formal communication structures for the community to provide face-to-face input.
As well as developing a series of structured stakeholder meetings and information sessions, these structures also included:
- developing a Community Advisory Group to enable formal input to the project team;
- a community and volunteer program to enable community participation in prisoner rehabilitation;
- tours and open days for the local community; and
- ongoing structured political liaison.
These were supported by extensive communication tools, including advertising, media relations, newsletters, direct mail and online information.
Messages were developed to ensure consistency of all communication. (See Appendix A6).
Key Communication Structures
Community Advisory Group
A Community Advisory Group was established after a small core group of members was invited from neighbouring properties. A call for nominations was then advertised in local newspapers.
Twelve representatives were chosen from local residents, businesses, organisations and local government to attend the monthly meetings. The Department’s Public Affairs Manager has been a Departmental representative on the group since its inception. This consistency has been critical in ensuring that the group’s feedback was heard and responded to.
The CAG has met monthly since 2002 (continuing today and remaining unpaid). The group was instrumental in many key design and operation decisions – such as the type of fence, location of the entrance road and name of the facility. One of its recommendations – regarding placement of the entrance – was contrary to the Department’s preferred (and budgeted) option, but the Department’s commitment to genuine consultation was proven when it allocated additional $360,000 and changed its plans to accommodate the group’s request. This was a decision championed by the Public Affairs manager and proved valuable in earning the group’s long-term trust.
The group also provided valuable contacts and networks within the surrounding community and had high-level support from the Minister’s office and Premier, who met personally with the group.
CAG’s role was completely transparent, with profiles and contact details of all members posted on the Department’s website as well as minutes of all meetings. (See Appendix A1).
Face to face meetings
While time consuming, the Department felt the most effective way to communicate with key publics was through face-to-face meetings in small groups.
Of these meetings, one of the most important was a planning ‘charrette’, held with local residents before any of the planning began. More than 100 people attended and the results formed part of the design brief.
A comprehensive schedule of meetings and stakeholder briefings with local community representatives, organisations and local government was developed to ensure there was an opportunity to provide feedback.
These meetings enabled publics to provide feedback and ask questions while giving the Department a chance to dispel rumours and gain a invaluable insight into views and attitudes.
Community and volunteer program
Toward the end of construction, the public affairs team developed a community and volunteer program, involving a comprehensive recruitment strategy.
This including advertising for expressions of interest from organisations and individuals who wanted to volunteer their time and services to prisoners. Links within the Community Advisory Group were also used to initiate the program, which is now serviced by a full-time coordinator.
To support the program long-term a range of communication tools were developed.
(See Appendix A2).
Tours and information sessions
Community involvement was an integral part of the facility’s opening, with a week of tours and information sessions held with the community. More than 550 community members accepted the offer to tour the facility in 11 sessions.
The Premier and local member’s full knowledge of, and respect for, the community consultation process ensured he remained committed to the prison expansion when political pressure rose. (See Appendix A4).
Supporting communication plans
Supporting these key structures were comprehensive communication plans developed at each stage of the project.
These plans detailed the use of a range of communication tools and included:
- Letters to more than 1,600 local residents when the project was announced in 1999, and when it started in September 2001;
- Information about the project on the Department’s internet site, which was updated, at least, every month;
- Newsletters distributed to 750 residents and interested publics every quarter, from September 2002 to July 2004, to inform them of progress;
- Six public information advertisements in local newspapers to keep residents and community groups informed about the project’s progress;
- Prison open days and workshops;
- Editorial in community newsletters, such as the Swan Village of Care newsletter;
- Continued contact with media, including briefings with new local journalists and at key milestones;
- Information video about the community and volunteer program; and
- Information banners and displays for community meetings and opening.
The evaluation results speak for themselves.
Never before has a prison development so successfully integrated the community from the project beginning, to deliver a facility that not only meets the needs of the department, but satisfies the needs of the local community.
Sustained, honest and consistent communication was delivered time and time again on a face-to-face basis. This approach meant the Department was able to deal with the small, group of opponents.
A key success of the program is the Community Advisory Group, which was instrumental in bringing community issues to the Department, making recommendations and enabling the Department to provide accurate information to the community.
The CAG has had 37 meetings and continued with the same Chair until March 2005. During development, CAG members (even those originally opposing the project) spoke out proactively for the prison, without any paid or political agenda. (see Appendix A1 media clip ““Elderly not under threat from prison”).
Today, a year after opening, there is only support for the prison. Neighbours continue to interact with the prison on a daily basis, actively attending prison functions and volunteering. Prisoners also undertake community work in the community – including at the retirement villages next door.
This program remains an example of community relations at its best.
The communication success is evaluated by success in:
- Meeting overall communication goal – achieved (see results section, page 10)
- Completing communication actions – achieved (see implementation, page 6)
- Meeting communication objectives (listed page 3) – see following.
Objectives 1 & 2 - These can be measured by:
- Extent of community opposition; and
- Proportion of positive to negative media.
During development, a small but vocal community group voiced opposition to the prison’s location, largely supported by the deputy mayor, and presented a petition to Parliament. However, a series of small meetings organised by the Department, found many signatories changed their mind after hearing the facts first hand.
The opponents also lobbied the Town of Victoria Park to fund a community action group, which it did in 2003/04. However, since the prison opened in 2004, there has been no activity.
Both council and State elections have also passed without any impact on the prison.
In addition, media analysis undertaken shows a shift from neutral position to negative in 2002 and 2003, to largely positive in 2004 and 2005. In particular, ABC TV and the West Australian provided overwhelmingly positive coverage after the prison began operations. (See Appendix A5).
Objectives 3 & 4 - These can be measured by:
- Extent of community involvement in planning of community services/projects The Community Advisory Group has provided a high level of input and continues to do so in the prison planning and ongoing operations. (See Appendix 1) Many partnerships and reciprocal agreements have been reached with stakeholders. This includes a landmark memorandum of understanding with Curtin University in April 2004 (See Attachment 2).
Objective 5 - These can be measured by:
- Level of positive relationships with local community members maintained throughout the process; and
- Level of satisfaction local community organisations have with process.
In the past five months, volunteers have provided about 730 hours of service to prisoners of Boronia in 12 different programs. This is increasing each month.
In return, the prisoners completed more than 3,500 hours of reparative work for local community organisations, worth more than $52,000, in the first year.
Some 28 community volunteers have been formally inducted and are involved in various skills and personal development courses, such as child minding, domestic skills and job preparation skills.