We should be doing everything possible to ensure people come out of the prison experience in a better state than when they went in. It is my experience that in general people come out of prison in a worse state than when they went in. We should be doing everything we can to ensure that an offender is not hardened by the prison experience, that an inmate is not corralled by a constancy of trauma that debilitates into aggressive complex traumas. We should be doing everything we can to improve the lot of others, to forgive, to redeem, to validate, to support psychosocially, to spread the love, to transform lives.
In Western Australia, the rate of imprisonment of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander children is 50 per cent higher than the imprisonment rate of Black children in the US. Children should not just be dealt incarceration and treated punitively but should be offered every opportunity to positively develop. There is not a single justification to deny children in Juvenile Detention the opportunity of a quality school education and where needed one-on-one tuition made available.
I have seen the inside of prisons and thousands of inmates would take up the opportunity of a fully-fledged education – secondary and tertiary. Imagine, thousands of former inmates walking out of prison with a university degree.
Non-Indigenous Australians are incarcerated at around 200 per 100,000 adults but Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander adults are incarcerated at 2,330 per 100,000 Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander adults. It’s beyond any justification – it’s an abomination. However the narrative of human misery and suffering is worst in Western Australia where Aboriginal adults are incarcerated at close to the world’s highest incarceration rate – 2nd highest at 3,745 per 100,000. Western Australia enjoys the nation’s highest median wage – one of the world’s highest but not so its Aboriginal peoples. If you are born Black in Western Australia you have a two in three chance of living poor your whole life.
More than two years ago, the incumbent government of Western Australia promised to focus on transforming the lives of the impoverished and vulnerable who comprise the majority of the state’s prison population but this promise has been betrayed and the government remains fixated on punishing people – taking them from broken lives to ruined lives.
Nationally, 86 per cent of inmates have not completed a Year 12 education – more than 60 per cent have not completed Year 10 and more than 40 per cent have not completed Year 9.
Lives can be changed, hope can flourish and outcomes achieved but the helping hand is needed – pre-release and post-release. As a society we should be doing everything possible to keep people out of prison – and not everything we can to jail people, but where incarceration is the outcome, then everything must be done to help the people within them.
It can be done – in my time in the tertiary sector I assisted many former inmates and homeless individuals into gaining entry into an educational institution. However bridging them into university alone is not good enough as students as a whole who have been bridged in have low student retention levels. I developed programs and services to psychosocially support from the point of entry to the point of exit students I assisted into tertiary education. We supported many of them into shared accommodation, stabilising their lives, and assisted or connected them to services where they could be further supported in health, welfare and legal issues. I developed tutoring programs to support them if needed in just about every unit of their degree programs – once again from the point of entry to the point of exit. As a result the majority of them graduated and none to my knowledge have re-offended or finished homeless again.
Kuku-Yalanji man, Jeremy Donovan last year oversaw the production of the Prison to Work Report for the Closing the Gap mob. On the first page of the report is an image by Jeremy titled, ‘Set Me Free.’ Jeremy writes, “’Set Me Free’ refers not just to prison walls but also the layers of trauma Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners often deal with.”
We need to invest in education opportunities while people are incarcerated in Juvenile Detention and in adult prisons. What is on the outside can also be on the inside – prisons do not have to be vile dungeons of psychological torment, they can be communities of educational institutions, places of learning, social support structures.
There are 10, 11 and 12 year olds in Juvenile Detention facilities – child prisons – and the situational trauma of incarceration should not be allowed to degenerate these children into serious psychological hits. These are already critically at-risk children who need support and not the rod. The majority of the children will respond to the helping hand, as long as they validated and under no circumstance denigrated.
With Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander children, nearly 80 per cent will be jailed again after release from their first stint in Juvenile Detention. The punitive with all its associated denigrations is not working. The psychosocial self has been humiliated, debilitated, stressed by traumas.
I am advocating for all places of incarceration to be significantly transformed into communities of learning and opportunity. This is what any reasonably-minded society would support.
– Gerry Georgatos is a suicide prevention researcher and restorative justice and prison reform expert with the Institute of Social Justice and Human Rights. He is a member of several national projects working on suicide prevention, particularly with elevated risk groups and in developing wellbeing to education to work programs for inmates and former inmates.