A new maximum security men’s prison with 700 beds will be built in Lara, at a cost of almost $700 million, as Victoria’s prison population grows to record levels.
The Andrews government will commit $689.5 million in next week’s state budget – almost $1 million per prisoner – to build the jail, which it says will open in 2022.
But it has not yet secured the site for the prison, and remains in negotiations with landowners, even though it hopes to begin construction next year.
It plans to build the jail near the existing Barwon and Marngoneet prisons just north of Geelong.
Victoria’s prison population is soaring and the state’s jails are almost 90 per cent full.
The government announced funding for the new prison after The Age reported on Tuesday that much of the increase in prisoner numbers has been driven by an extraordinary rise in the number of people being held on remand while awaiting trial.
There are about 7400 people behind bars in Victoria, official figures show, a 7 per cent increase in the past year.
This includes 2600 unsentenced prisoners awaiting trial, a near doubling of the number of prisoners on remand from just 3˝ years ago.
The government has attributed this rise to its recruitment of hundreds of new police, its introduction of tougher bail laws and general population growth.
But it is also putting strain on prison capacity.
A new 1000-bed prison at Ravenhall, which opened late last year, is expected to accommodate as many as 450 remand prisoners when it is full.
Corrections Minister Gayle Tierney said the government understood that Victoria’s prison population was forecast to keep growing and so was planning for the future.
“It’s unfortunate that we need to build new prisons but it just is a matter of fact unfortunately ... and we need to ensure that we’ve got a secure prison system so that we can keep our community safe,” Ms Tierney said.
Community safety will be one of the defining campaign themes of this year's state election, with both sides of politics hardening their policies on law and order in response to public concerns about crime.
The government is also due to put 470 new prison beds inside existing jails over the next three years, at a cost of $345 million, and Ms Tierney said this would ensure prisons did not hit capacity before the expected opening of a new jail at Lara in about four years' time.
Acting Corrections Commissioner Rod Wise said the coming 470-bed increase would help to manage the growth in prisoners on remand.
People on remand have been spread around the state, in jails that traditionally only hold convicted prisoners, including Barwon, Fulham and Hopkins, Mr Wise said.
“And of course Ravenhall will hold about 450 remand prisoners when it’s at its capacity,” Mr Wise said.
The opposition said the prison system was in crisis, while the Andrews government had not created a single new prison bed since it was elected.
“Let’s remember this government under Daniel Andrews has not actually delivered any capacity that wasn’t already in the pipeline by the time of the last election,” Shadow Attorney-General John Pesutto said.
“It’s a matter of enormous concern that the government is in its fourth year and it hasn’t even acquired the land for a facility [at Lara].”
Contracts for the 1000-bed Ravenhall facility were signed in 2014 in the final weeks of the former Napthine government.
The Ravenhall facility was built under a public-private partnership and is privately operated, by the GEO Group.
The Lara prison will be run by the state government.
Victoria’s Auditor-General found in a report last month that Victoria’s privately run prisons cost up to 20 per cent less to run that the average state-owned prison here.
About a third of prisoners in Victoria are held in privately operated prisons.
Both the government and the opposition said they were in favour of a corrections system that had a mix of publicly and privately run prisons.
It cost Victorian taxpayers $811 million to run the state’s men’s prisons last financial year, a 90 per cent increase on costs at the start of the decade.