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Prisoners Justice Day, not enough being done

August 24th, 2013

Michael Cockram, chair of the Sycamore Project speaking at the Prisoners Day gathering

Michael Cockram, chair of the Sycamore Project speaking at the Prisoners Day gathering

International Prisoners Day is held in many of the world’s Western nations but it holds increasing significance for Australia’s Aboriginal peoples who are incarcerated at the world’s highest rates. In Western Australia, prison reform academics, not-for-profit prisoner support groups and Corrective Services executives and their contractors gathered for the Prisoners Day event on August 10 at Curtin University’s Aboriginal Studies Centre.

Prison reform academic, Dr Brian Steels, who is also an executive of the International Restorative Justice Network, said that the Australian prisons system is “a penal estate which is harsh on prisoners.” He said that Aboriginal prisoners are harmed further by the prison experience and which in turn leads to their endemic poverty, high suicide rates and high re-offending rates. Dr Steels called for a total overhaul of both the prisons and criminal justice systems.

“At the centre of every crime there are relationships to be healed,” said Dr Steels. He said that support counsellors, psycho-social counsellors, Aboriginal peoples in these roles, healing circles were needed at the criminal justice level and not just during incarceration to heal suffering in not just victims but in perpetrators, to address underlying issues, to empower people, to relieve them with forgiveness, to rebuild relationships. This would lead to many minor offenders not needing to be jailed, and in reducing the likelihood of any re-offending.

The Australian prison population doubled during the last two decades, from 15,000 to 31,000 with the brunt of this rise borne by Aboriginal peoples. Twenty years ago, Aboriginal prisoners comprised one in seven of all prisoners, today they are more than one in four, by 2020 they will be one in three and by 2030 they will be one in two.

“We want to close the gap, victims must be supported but to close the gap we must support everyone, perpetrators too, that is if we are to be fair and just, that is if we want a fair and just society,” said Dr Steels.

“Let us remind ourselves of some of the underlying issues, the crimes against the cultural integrity and communities of our Aboriginal peoples.”

“These crimes in the present, as in the past, lead to inter-generational trauma. People are born into conditions of vulnerability. If we do not address today what is wrong then abominable legacies will continue.”

“We must understand that the first person who is harmed is the self. Victims do have the support of their families, but the perpetrator is often isolated. We must be about caring for people. This is the only way we will breakdown the penal estate.”

“The International Prisoners Justice Day is about fairness and justice injected into all our systems.”

“If you treat people fairly you will have a better outcome.” Dr Steels said that if we do not treat people otherwise then the penal estate will continue to grow. A new prison is built each year in Australia. Where the Australian prison doubled during the last two decades, projections have it doubling again but only in one decade. The national Corrective Services budget is now more than $3 billion annually.

“Our prison system is sick, it is broken. We have prisoners sleeping in crowded cells on mattresses on floors.”

“Support programs are not being funded. State and Federal budgets fail to prioritise what would reduce re-offending and offending in the first place. The WA State Government is the worst in the nation in not funding support programs. WA is behind the times, here in this State we incarcerate children at the nation’s highest rates where in other States they would not be detained and instead would be in various programs.”

“These are children I am talking about, our children, we need to help them. It is shameful that 70 per cent of WA’s juvenile detention are our Aboriginal children.”

Many attended, including from legal services groups, Corrective Services management and their contractors such as the multinational services provider SERCO, which privately manages some of Australia’s prisons and prisoner transport services, and there were also not-for-profit support groups such as RUAH and the Sycamore Project.

The Sycamore Project’s chair Michael Cockram visits prisons and works with prisoners and changes lives.

“You cannot give up on people, even when you feel revolted by some of the crimes because if you do then we lose each other, and then we are held hostage to fear and divisions and hate. We need to listen to each others stories and work from there. This leads to people apologising, to remedy, to empowerment, to people gaining employment, to change in the interests of all.”

“We all have a story that can be worked with.”

International Prisoners Justice Day marks the anniversary of the 1974 death of Eddie Nalon, a prisoner who bled to death in a solitary confinement unit in a Canada’s Millhaven prison, when the emergency button in his cell failed to work. An inquest found that the call button had been deactivated by the guards. The following year prisoners at Millhaven marked the anniversary of Mr Nalon’s death by fasting and refusing to work. By May 1976, the call buttons had not been repaired and Bobby Landers was the next to die in his cell. With no way to call for help, he scribbled a note that described the symptoms of a heart attack.

What started as an annual remembrance at Millhaven is now an international movement calling for restorative justice.

August 10 has been officially set aside for prisoners and their advocates to remember those who have died unnatural deaths in prison and express solidarity with the millions inside prison who argue prisons are brutal, dehumanising peoples instead of ‘rehabilitating’ or helping them.

International Prisoners Justice Day rose on the international calendar after an incident in an Australian prison – Maitland Jail in NSW. Prison officers with dogs pushed over a prisoner holding his 20 month old baby and strangled his 17 year old partner with her camera strap. Police refused to charge the officers.

Australia has one of the world’s worst rates of prison deaths in custody; Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal deaths have not been reduced in the last twenty years despite the 1987-1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. Australia jails Aboriginal adult males at the world’s highest rates, and at six times the rate of what South Africa was jailing its Black adult males in the last years of apartheid.

– Impartiality conflict of interest declared by the writer of this article, Gerry Georgatos, who is a PhD researcher in Australian Custodial Systems and Australian Deaths in Custody.

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