At Don Dale juvenile detention centre a 15-year-old orphaned Aboriginal boy took his life only days after being locked up for $90 worth of ‘crimes’.
How many Australians have heard of Johnno Warramarrba?
Johnno’s mother died when he was a baby. His dad was killed in a car accident when he was eleven. When he committed his less than $90 worth of ‘crimes’ – the stealing of pens and stationary – his grandmother was seriously ill in Darwin Hospital.
This young boy is one of many lives lost in and out of juvenile detention. In general our youth come out of juvenile detention in a worse state than they went in. Hopelessness is all their mind’s eye sees. That which the eye sees and the ear hears is despair and the fears that go with.
For every young life lost, thousands of others meander in broken lives and for many from broken lives to ruination. Johnno Warramarrba was found hanging in his cell. This was February 9, 2000.
He had been arrested in his hometown on Groote Eylandt for stealing goods worth less than $90. There was no counselling and he was not guided by any mentoring. Instead he was journeyed 800 kilometres to Darwin and jailed.
Five days before he was due to be released Johnno killed himself. Because he refused to wash up, a prison officer ordered him to his cell. He was found a little while later, hanging. He died nine hours later at Darwin Hospital.
The penal estate, in line with the criminal justice system, is a culture of punishment. Punishment is dished up in one form or another. Punishment is soaked up till one is broken.
In 2009, an Aboriginal boy aged 12 was arrested and jailed for being in possession of a piece of chocolate – a Freddo frog. He was charged for shoplifting from a Coles supermarket. He was locked up for stealing an item that would have sold for 70 cents.
The kid had no prior convictions. Should we be prosecuting children over 70 cents worth of chocolate?
Western Australia is the mother of jailers of the nation’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. One in 5 of the state’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have been to prison – this is an abomination and not only smacks of but is racialised imprisonment. It is also the world’s highest jailing rate. One in 12 of the state’s Aboriginal adult males are in jail.
Australia has the world’s highest rate of juvenile detention with the mother of all jailers, the United States of America, ranked second behind Australia. The juvenile detention rate gets worse, higher the more west we travel across the Australian continent, with the Northern Territory and Western Australia highest.
Children screaming for help and instead of listening to them we brutalise them; maltreating, abusing, degrading, diminishing, bashing, isolating them. What is with the 23 hour lockdowns? What is with the long-term separations from other detainees, from human contact? What is with hundreds of days consecutive in isolation?
The hurt is deep, damaging. It goes to the psychosocial, destroying prospects of a positive self, robbing one of all hope.
Lost boys and girls – lost children. They are called good for nothing, rotten to the core, dogs. They are queued up, marched, locked up. If we believe in them, they’ll believe in themselves.
There is nothing as profoundly powerful as forgiveness. The forgiveness of others validates self-worth, builds bridges and positive futures. What is missing from the criminal justice system and the penal estate are the cultures of forgiveness and redemption. Forgiveness cultivated and understood keeps families and society solid as opposed to the corrosive anger that diminishes people into the darkest places, into effectively being mental unwell. Anger is a warning sign to becoming unwell. Love comes more natural to the human heart despite that hate can take one over. In the battle between love and hate, one will choose love more easily when in understanding of the endless dark place that is hate and of its corrosive impacts.
Hate can never achieve what love ever so easily can. Hate and anger have filled our prison and juvenile detention centres with the mentally unwell, with the most vulnerable, with the poor – and not with the criminally minded.
Treated as no good they play out in ways they don’t want be, anger follows and the storm is wild.
There is cognitive narrowing but they are not underdeveloped in the neural sense as many rush to claim. Aberrant behaviour is not cognitive impairment but rather cognitive understandings that they are being left behind, left to rot. That’s both neglect and discrimination.
Like so many others, I have worked to turn around the lives of as many people in jail as I possibly could, but for every inmate or former inmate that people like me dedicate time to in order to improve their lot – ultimately there is a tsunami of poverty related issues and draconian laws that flood ‘offenders’ into prisons. Jailing the poorest, most vulnerable, the mentally unwell, those lost in the aberrant, in my experience only serves to elevate the risk of reoffending, of normalising disordered and broken lives of digging deeper divides between people, of marginalising people. It has been my experience that in general people come out of prison worse than when they went in.
Australia jails and punishes like there’s no tomorrow.
Johnno Warramarrba lived below the poverty line – in extreme poverty. He just wanted to go to school.
Nearly 100 per cent of children in juvenile detention, and nearly 100 per cent of adult prisoners live below the poverty line.
Juvenile detention centres and adult prisons are firmaments of institutional racism and classism.
Johnno Warramarrba’s mother died when he was a baby. His dad was killed in a car accident when he was eleven. When he committed his less than $90 worth of ‘crimes’ – the stealing of pens and stationary – his grandmother was seriously ill in Darwin Hospital. The boy came from Groote Eylandt. It’s an island of three communities. It is a closed island where permission is required to visit. The impoverishment of the people is stark despite the high cultural content. Only three students have ever graduated high school.
But on Groote Eylandt there is the GEMCO manganese mine – one of the richest such projects in the world. The FIFOs have it well – I stayed where they do in Anungu however it is a different story for the rest of the island. Talk about Native Title failing a community. In general, Native Title is a longstanding debacle as a holistic compensatory mechanism. I spent time on Groote Eylandt in responding to the suicide related trauma of a family who lost their 13 year old daughter. The island community had a resident counsellor predominately for the FIFOs but no resident counsellors for the locals.
The degradation of homeland communities across northern and western Australia is the work of one government after another, who are responsible either in stripping social infrastructure and assets from these communities or who have denied the equivalency of services and opportunities to these communities when compared to non-Aboriginal communities.
It was reported that in the week after Johnno’s suicide, that a 22-year-old Groote Eylandt man was sentenced to jail for a Christmas Day ‘crime’ in 1998. He was found guilty of stealing biscuits and cordial from the GEMCO storeroom. Jamie Wurramara was jailed for a so-called crime, $23.
The public outcries come and go and are forgotten, but the broken and ruined lives mount. The toll is becoming insurmountable – an abomination.
One in four of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander males have been to prison. The suicides are increasing, the number of people jailed increasing.
Institutional racism and classism makes deaf and blind the nation but somehow if today’s children and tomorrow’s unborn are to share in hope the nation’s eyes and ears need lending to.