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Indigenous Australia

Changing the lives of Australia's incarcerated Indigenous people

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Incarceration rates of Indigenous Australians have become a concerning issue over the years (Screenshot via YouTube)

Gerry Georgatos shares his experience with improving some incarcerated Indigenous lives to education, employment and to rightful dignities.

THE LAST HALF-CENTURY has culminated in Australia’s highest incarceration, homeless and poverty rates. It is getting worse, not better. The evident ways forward need a light shined on them and mass social investments.

Half a century ago, the corrals of segregation finally came to an end and for a couple of decades and there was some paving of the roads to equality. However, a quarter of a century ago, disproportional incarceration rates between the descendants of the First Peoples and other Australians were in proximity. This is no longer the case. Australia owns a humanitarian crisis as the mother of gaolers, but only of the First Peoples.

However, relatively newly arrived migrants, who are also intersected by poverty and for many traumas including war that their minds cannot leave behind, are an increasing incarcerated cohort. Homelessness is on the increase for all Australians, but one in three of the homeless are migrant-born Australians, mostly from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) backgrounds. One in four of the homeless are descendants of the First Peoples.

More needs to be done now than ever before. This, underwritten by radical empathy, must be an uninterruptable non-negotiable fast and hard rule.

We must also be morally responsible and triage. To bring home the extensiveness of the racialised gaoling, let us understand the toll instead of rates. One in 50 living Australians has been to prison. One in six of the living descendants of the First Peoples has been to prison. Five hundred thousand living Australians, from 25 million Australians, have been to prison. Of the 500,000, more than 120,000 are accounted by the descendants of the First Peoples. 

The corrals of segregation have been replaced by dungeons, hovels of human misery, juvenile and adult gaols overcrowded with impoverished individuals from broken homes, nearly all without having completed schooling.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, nearly 90 per cent of the national prison population has not completed secondary schooling.

It is our experience that the majority of the incarcerated are our most vulnerable citizens. Whether they re-offend or not, they live harrowed and depleted lives. It is our claim that the majority have lived through family violence, the worst negative aberrance, crushing poverty and for many, chronic substance misuse. Many were without parents. Another claim by us is for many, maybe the majority, they’re victims of child sexual abuse.

Whatever their crime, the majority never had much of a chance from the beginning of life. To argue otherwise makes for a compassionless society, for a ruthless society that denies its histories and original sins.

It is our experiential-based premise that nearly all of the national prison population are of individuals living below the Henderson Poverty Line.

For the descendants of the First Peoples who are incarcerated, they have it toughest and there is a cumulative collective trauma. Segregation, apartheid, people without citizenship are a century long. The missions and the reserves, horrid vestibules where children were devastated by sexual abuses and relentless diminishing, effective orphans, scattered to society’s edges upon the end run of teen years.

We support, where possible, children and youth leaving juvenile detention and prisons. For many leaving prison, they come out as worse than they went in, without a gateway to hope and stalwart love. It is our long experience that there is a necessary journey, uninterrupted, to be had alongside them for the transformation to eventuate, on a firmament of relentless belief and validation of who they are and can be. However, we must go to them, not they to us. We owe them the love, the hope here onward, the paved road.

Presently, we have a cohort of youth in training for employment of whom such expectation was nearly impossible. Every day we turn up for them; this is the missing link. One 18-year-old who last year spent most of that year in juvenile detention, with the love of others by her side, travelled each day to training from the southernmost tip of Perth. This was an hour and a half each way to and from training. Because we believed in her so strongly, she began to believe in herself.

Training manager of Skills, Training and Engineering Services (STES), Clinton Kieswetter, said:

“She was amazing and dedicated to changing her life given this opportunity. Though she had already passed all components of the training, she asked if she could do two of the modules again so she could reinforce her learnings and best serve her employment prospects.”

A collaboration of believers in humanity came together to support her. If not, destiny would be a life behind bars, drugs, homelessness and bringing into the world a broken family of her own. This is no longer a prospect. The intergenerational injustice ended. Mineng Noongar social justice warrior, Mervyn Eades, CEO of Ngalla Maya Aboriginal Corporation, mentored her through a Commonwealth-funded post-prison training to employment program

Mervyn said:

I spent 18 years in and out juvenile detention and prison, from 13 years of age to 31 years old. It’s a shit life. I lost both my parents at ten years of age. I lost my 18-year-old baby brother to suicide in an adult prison. He didn’t last long in there. His loss broke my heart. He had only been out of juvenile for weeks.

 

We all have the right to lead fulfilling lives long denied to the majority of my Peoples.

The collaboration included relentless psychosocial support, daily outreach, addressing an arc of issues, building safety nets by us at the fledgling National Suicide Prevention & Trauma Recovery Project (NSPTRP). The collaboration included the extra yards that the registered training provider, STES, delivers.

STES was founded by a former Palestinian refugee, Haifa-born Kamal Haddad. Kamal arrived as a refugee and has spent his Australian years in the service of improving lives.

Clinton is from South Africa. Like Kamal, he left a motherland where sisters and brothers are left behind. Mervyn is a Mineng Noongar. Add in another Mineng Noongar, Megan Krakouer and a Greek, myself. We’re all sisters and brothers.

For the record, Ngalla Maya, though not funded to do so, has sponsored non-Indigenous former inmates through training to employment, therefore picking up the tab. STES, over the years, has taken into training extremely vulnerable youth we have referred for free. They have graduated in the last couple of years more than 300 descendants of the First Peoples, who were either recently incarcerated, impoverished or homeless. They have trained hundreds of CALD migrants.

Where there is the political and spiritual will not only is there a way, but success is guaranteed.

We remember always and are inspired by one particular young person with battles, unimaginable to most Australians, who we would not give up on. We fought for her, turning up in her life every day, not leaving even when cursing us away. We thank Mervyn, Kamal and Clinton for not giving up on her. It took three separate training programs to complete her securing of qualifications and the promise of her employability.

As a society, we owe those denied equal footing from the beginning of life a never-give-up kind of love. May governments and others heed.

Ngalla Maya is a beauty untold. They set an annual national record for the greatest number of the descendants of First Peoples recently released from gaol, through to training to employment. What is a standout is they vet no one out. They accept into their mentoring and subsequent training those who are homeless, transient, who present before the criminal justice system, who are still vulnerable to substance misuse.

It is our view that if someone puts their hand out, that we take that hand without delay. We incentivise our sisters and brothers by believing in them. We don’t tell them to go to rehab first, or to come back when you have a fixed address.

The NSPTRP spreads the love, salts the Earth, with the critical and long-haul outreach support — there to ensure the hopeful are validated, believe in themselves, are their best selves and become free from trauma and harrowing doubts.

The fiscal investments, by the endless tranche of underperforming insufferable governments, just never happen. That is to the adequate level, forever desired, so as to radically transform the lives of our most marginalised. We can reduce the national prison population and the social return includes strong families, but the annual investments must be in the hundreds of millions of dollars annually. A billion dollars annually can be recalibrated from the penal estate’s multi-billion annual spend.

It is our view, that the world’s 14th largest economy, Australia, has the fiscal capacity to spread the love, to transform the lives of the incarcerated and hence see many jails close. We should not be arguing for radical empathy, it should be a matter of fact — steadfastly noble.

Declaration of Partiality: Gerry Georgatos produced the funding submissions for Ngalla Maya and championed their cause, and throughout 2017 and part of 2018, while Ngalla Maya was an effective start-up, Gerry pro-bono cashflow managed Ngalla Maya until they could afford a general manager.

Gerry Georgatos is the national coordinator of the National Suicide Prevention & Trauma Recovery Project. Gerry can be contacted at coordinator@suicidepreventionnationnal.com.au or you can follow Gerry on Twitter @GerryGeorgatos.

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