West Kimberley regional prison

West Kimberley regional prison

A couple of years ago, the State’s 14th adult prison was completed – an all-Aboriginal prison- in the west Kimberley at Derby. It is now being presented as the model that should be followed in order to reduce the horrific incarceration rates that First Peoples endure. But despite what is being presented to the media by the State Government and Corrective Services, is Derby regional prison really any chance of reducing reoffending rates and in bettering lives?

Western Australia not only has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, its First People adult males endure the highest incarceration rate in the world. Recently, renowned international documentary maker, John Pilger, discussed the ‘racking and stacking’ of Aboriginal people into Western Australia’s penal estate in his documentary, ‘Utopia’. In ‘Utopia’, Derby’s all-Aboriginal prison received a mention, fleetingly, from a snippet of an interview with myself. As a custodial systems and deaths in custody researcher I criticised the State Government, that the best they can do for impoverished First Peoples is to build an all-Aboriginal prison.

More than 5,100 prisoners, a record number, languish in the State’s 14 adult prisons – in overcrowded conditions. More than 40 per cent are First Peoples, but in terms of the State population they comprise less than 3 per cent, thereabouts 80,000 First Peoples, but more than 2,000 of their adult males are in prison. From a racialised perspective, this is racism. One in 16 Aboriginal adult males is in one of those of the 14 prisons.

The Derby prison was designed as an all-Aboriginal prison on the premise that it could implement cultural and identity building programs, and through these ‘teach life skills’ that aim to reduce reoffending. This is to assume that they don’t have life skills in the first place, a premise wrought with risk, and contingent heavily on who has been assigned to work through culture and identity to reach those on the inside.

But this prison is still a prison, feels like a prison and is in line with the experience of isolation that is the penal estate. Prisons that have track records of reducing reoffending are yet to be found in Australia, but Norway’s Bastoy prison is one where reoffending is among the lowest in the world. But it does not look like a prison, there are few guards, and the prisoners work their own days, are responsible for initiatives including sustainable vegetable gardens and go to bed when they’re ready – there are no guards to lock them in. Trust and dignity are huge drivers in engaging people.

Till Derby’s prison scrubs up with the statistics to justify itself, it cannot lay claim to what any press release may hail, that it will reduce reoffending. The fact that Derby is an all-Aboriginal prison is a sad sell, and not an answer in itself. In fact, most of the regional prisons are comprised predominately of First Peoples. Just south of Derby is one of the worst of prisons in the nation – Roebourne jail, in the Pilbara – and it is just about all-Aboriginal. Further south again, is Geraldton’s Greenough prison, once again predominately Aboriginal. They do not have low reoffending rates, Roebourne’s reoffending rate sits unwell at 44 per cent.

But Griffith University researcher John Rynne sees it all otherwise and he said to the ABC online news, “There’s no other prison in the country like this.”

“In fact, there’s probably no other prison in the world like this.” This is incorrect however he continues, “There’s a level of tension even in the best prison and when you walk inside (Derby), sure, there’s a level of tension – you know you’re in a prison. But there’s also a sense of control and calmness which is really unusual. This will make a significant contribution to improving Aboriginal people’s outcomes in the community.” Maybe so, we will see, but I doubt it.

Derby prison is small, the 144 inmates live together in self-contained houses, grouped according to family ties and a security rating. They are locked in houses, not in their room, which is a good step in the right direction, but not what occurs for instance at Bastoy island prison, where there are no locks anywhere in the ‘prison’ and prisoners can use dinghies to travel around the island.

Derby prison provides the prisoners a weekly budget to buy food, and they are responsible for cooking their own meals and keeping their houses tidy. The prison also boasts that it is tying up prisoners time with education and training opportunities. This has to be evidenced. Years ago I tried to get computers for education purposes into WA prisons but the Government stood in the way – I met with the relevant Minister at the time – even though I was able to donate them to Indonesian prisons in order to help prisoners engage in tertiary education. With this State’s prisoners, in general, I had to wait post-release to assist as many as I could into various education, including tertiary education. Corrective Services needs to report what educational opportunities are being made available rather than generic statements through the media which these days churns out just about anything presented to it.

Derby prison has stated that it has “noticed shortages” in local communities “in construction, community services, hospitality and aged care” and hence wants to prepare prisoners post release for these employment opportunities. Great, but the how needs to be articulated. Let us hope Derby is on the right path and will do as it is suggesting.

At first, the Chair of the Prime Minister’s Indigenous Advisory Council, Warren Mundine was critical of Derby prison, he said what I said, “is this the best they can do, an all-Aboriginal prison?”

He describes what we all know, that there is “brotherhood” and increasingly “a sisterhood” for many Aboriginal youth within the prison system.

“We know Indigenous people find it more comfortable inside the prison system, so making the prisons more culturally appropriate is going to make it more attractive,” said Mr Mundine.

“To be honest I really don’t support and have reservations in regard to building Aboriginal prisons.”

But he went down the line of effectively harsh deterrence, retributive justice instead of restorative justice. Harsh deterrence has no track record of success anywhere in the world. “I’m not saying we should make them go back and make them lay on the ground on the cold stones, and get out the lash and whip them, but the problem is we don’t want to make detention centres and jails too appealing to people.”

The prison cost $150 million, funds that could have been better spent according to Mr Mundine. He said funds should be directed to programs external to the prison experience.

“What happens if it’s culturally appropriate in the prison and then there’s nothing good outside?”

“Where are people going to head (once outside)? They’re going to go to prison.”

“If we’re going to look at culturally appropriate stuff, we need to be doing that in the communities, we need to be doing that outside the prison system,” said Mr Mundine.

In the first year post-release more former prisoners lose their lives by their own hand or to unnatural deaths than they do while in prison. The loss of life is up to ten times the rate post release, and the most vulnerable period is the first four weeks post release with hundreds dying by unnatural means or suicide.

Ultimately, we can only hope Corrective Services proves me wrong, and that the reoffending rate radically decreases, the suicides and unnatural deaths radically decrease, and that indeed people are empowered. In the end, as restorative justice academic Dr Brian Steels argues – what prisons there are, they must be transformed into restorative experiences, founded in human dignity and self-worth instead of human denigration, degradation and punishment, and mortared in trust in oneself and in others. Prisons should be a last resort but where they are a last resort they need to be in the least like Norway’s Bastoy prison, a real community and self-empowering experience, and produce a record to be proud of, one of low reoffending, which they enjoy, and the bettering of human lives, which they do achieve. Till Derby has similar statistics and facts, Corrective Services and the State Government should not be boasting about its all-Aboriginal prison.