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Brewarrina jail is closing and the community warns it will have a devastating effect

By Jessie Davies, Sunday October 20, 2019 - 10:31 EDT
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Aunty Loreen Coffey said Brewarrina's jail without bars has helped rehabilitate five of her sons. - ABC

No walls, razor wire or watchmen — Brewarrina's jail in far western New South Wales is one of a kind.



The Yetta Dhinnakkal Centre, meaning "right pathway" in traditional language, was established on a remote sheep station in 2000 as Australia's first prison exclusively for young Aboriginal men.

But the low-security facility, where inmates are called trainees and learn to farm, is set to be closed.

The decision has angered the Brewarrina community, who are making an impassioned plea to the NSW Government to reconsider, saying the closure could spell disaster for the troubled town.

"If you take this place away from the young people, you'll take it from our whole community," said Aunty Loreen Coffey.

"We need it."

Keeping families close

Aunty Coffey is mother to seven sons, five of whom have been rehabilitated at Yetta.

For decades, she made the 65-kilometre trip from Brewarrina to the facility, which is located south of the town in Gongolgon, to visit her sons and later to mentor countless others.

She's calling on authorities to halt their plans to transfer "her boys" into mainstream jails.

"We need to keep our children close to us out here," she said.



But Corrective Services NSW Commissioner Peter Severin said the location of the outback facility is just too remote and too costly to run.

"It's as expensive to run as a super max facility," he said.

Numbers, too, were critically low.

"At times we have more staff employed than we have inmates in the facility," he said.

"You don't get that in other jails."

Confidence builder

For 10 years, Brewarrina man Arthur "Earl" Orcher called Yetta home.



Inside the bounds of the red-earth farm he felt safe, secure and enjoyed regular visits from his family.

"They made sure we had everything going for us, including home-cooked meals," Mr Orcher said.

During his time inside he attained certificates in land conservation management, construction, pest management and agriculture.

The program built up his confidence and independence.

"Once you were confident enough they'd just put you on a tractor and say, 'I need you to go and do this.' They give you a radio so you can check in every hour to the main office, and you don't get that in any other jail," he said.

"I've got that many qualifications now; I'm proud of myself."

A big blow to businesses

Prolonged drought has crippled Brewarrina's economy in recent years. Dozens of shopfronts stand empty and unsightly bars protect windows from vandalism and theft.

Local business owner Trevor Cheatley said competition for jobs was tough and was about to get tougher.



"Locals are constantly calling and asking me for cleaning jobs; it breaks my heart to tell them no," he said.

Mr Cheatley, who owns the River View Motel on the town's beloved Barwon, said the centre's closure in mid-2020 will hit businesses hard.

He estimated one quarter of his income came from guests visiting loved ones at Yetta.

"If my guests don't come, my cleaners won't get paid," he said.

"It's a poor decision by government to close anything down in a drought-affected area right now.

"We need as much support as we can to keep this town alive until we do get some rain."

Too remote, too costly

Brewarrina was the location of one of the last Aboriginal deaths in custody before the 1987 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

Its unique jail was established to reduce the number of Aboriginal prisoners behind bars, and its opening heralded a new era of race relations in the far-western NSW town.

Commissioner Severin said the programs at Yetta had been successful but its remote location made it difficult to fulfil its original brief and its operational costs were untenable.



"One of the key objectives [from the royal commission] that was that we would locate people close to where they come from. That has not been able to be achieved, neither in the past nor at this point in time," he said.

The Commissioner has committed to working with the NSW Department of Planning and local groups to repurpose the 10,000-hectare facility.

A new life for Yetta

Blue-sky thinking is needed to ensure Yetta's legacy lives on, said Brewarrina Mayor Phillip O'Connor.

He would like to see the facility turned into a drug and alcohol rehabilitation centre for Aboriginal women.

"We don't want this facility to be blown away with the dust," Mr O'Connor said.

"As a community we're going to hook in and turn this negative around with some great ideas."


- ABC

© ABC 2019

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