Australia's biggest jail emphasises rehab

About half an hour into the official tour of the expanded Acacia Prison I had to stop and do a double take.

A prisoner was driving a forklift.

But instead of aiming it at a fence and flooring it, he was re-arranging pallets in a woodwork shed where fellow inmates with electric saws and other power tools were making bed bases for mine sites.

Prison administrators had stressed the emphasis placed on rehabilitation and job-readiness at Acacia, but to see the philosophy in action was arresting. No pun intended.

Seven West Media was invited to accompany Corrective Services Minister Joe Francis on his inspection of new facilities taking Acacia's capacity from about 1000 prisoners to 1387.

The medium-security Acacia Prison used to be noteworthy for being WA's main privately run prison, operated by Serco.

But the expansion has given it a new mantle - Australia's biggest jail, leapfrogging NSW's Long Bay Correctional Centre.

Expanding the prison is not simply a matter of building more cells.

Facilities supporting the prisoners' rehabilitation must also be added.

They include a bigger medical centre, vocational training centres with music and art rooms and expanded metalwork, woodwork and carpentry facilities designed to replicate real factories.

There's even a new hospitality training unit where prisoners can earn a certificate two or three in cooking or food preparation by supplying meals at the new staff canteen.

The menu I saw offered roast Harvey beef with mustard jus and Yorkshire pudding, Cajun chicken with tomato, red onion and coriander salsa, and a vegetarian option of roast Mediterranean vegetables with pumpkin ravioli.

The kitchen buzzed as prisoners in orange caps swarmed over dishes ahead of the lunchtime rush.

It could have been any trendy eatery across Perth, perhaps even a bit cleaner.

But it's still a prison.

Knives and other kitchen sharps are strictly controlled and if one is missing at the end of a shift, no-one leaves, food services manager Rod Race explained.

Acacia is billed as an "open-plan, campus-style" facility, and the description almost fits as prisoners hurried unescorted along paths to classes and programs. Don't be deceived, a guard assured me.

Prisoners are accounted for every minute of the day through regular "musters" and "swiping" in and out of units using advanced fingerprint technology.

The new accommodation comprises 168 single cells and 220 double cells.

Acacia is adequate, for a prison, but inhospitable by most other standards. Outdoors is stark and desolate, and the units and cells - stripped of hanging points - have a grim, industrial feel.

On the question of whether WA could do without being known as the home of Australia's largest prison, Mr Francis was dispassionate.

"It's a statistic," he said. "I don't think it's any different to watching the odometer ticking over in a car."