This article appears in The Incarceration Issue, a special edition of VICE Australia.
The prison business is booming, but for some Australian factory workers, assembling prefab cells is just like any other job.
These prefabricated prison cells were made in China out of solid steel. They were then flat-packed and shipped all the way to this factory in a nondescript Australian industrial estate. Here, they're assembled and fitted out with beds and toilets before being transported around the country in quantities of five per truck.There are numerous 1,000-plus bed facilities sprouting up around Melbourne, Sydney, and across Western Australia—so modular units like these are in high demand. In a good year, this factory will churn out 200 cells. This year they've done 100, but it's still only August.
The structures in these photographs will become new additions to a juvenile justice center. The missing walls will be filled with transparent polycarbonate windows to help ensure inmates don't harm themselves. As we look on, two men slot steel segments together with the help of a crane. They explain they'll travel to help with installation, which is a perk of the job. "This one's going north,'' says one of the guys, gesturing to the big metal box. Each cell is clean, stark, impregnable, and modern—a long way from the cement dungeons with barred windows we've grown to expect.
But while cells like these may represent the future of prisons, the workers here approach this job like they would any other. It's a typical engineering firm, except they build prisons—with a stroke of reflective realism. Before we leave I ask the owner if he believes prisons help. "Yes," he says, without hesitating. "I do wonder sometimes, but in the end I've seen some bad conditions in jails. Compared to getting chained up in a wet concrete hole, I'd much prefer to be in one of these. Much prefer."