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Incarceration: How Australia fails its vulnerable

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Cumulatively, poor education, unemployment and homelessness drive incarceration (Screenshot via YouTube)

Political will is needed to end the moral abomination that is Australia's punitive carceral estate — a dumping ground for those we leave behind, writes Gerry Georgatos.

*CONTENT WARNING: This article discusses suicide

THE PRISON INDUSTRIAL estate condemns Australia as failing its most vulnerable. Our expansive carceral estate is an indictment and a leaving behind of brothers, sisters and children.

Australia is polluted by 115 adult prisons and 17 juvenile detention facilities (children’s prisons). More than 500,000 Australians, living, have been to prison. The carceral estate is not "rehabilitative" — it is not born in a firmament of the redemptive, restorative or transformational. 

The carceral estate is not chartered by a pursuant positive social return so that sisters and brothers and children – born into unfairnesses, disadvantage, cruelty and suffering – are psychosocially supported to be their best selves.

Currently, Australia is the world’s 12th biggest economy — a trillionaire-plus Gross Domestic Product economy with among the world’s highest median wages and among the world’s highest per capita asset wealth. It is my claim Australia is a Dickensian tale of the haves and have-nots.

More than half of the incarcerated were unemployed during the month before they were tossed into prison. The majority of the incarcerated are comprised of the lowest quintile of income bases — vaulted below the poverty line, below the "bread line", in fact well below what I term "crushing’ poverty". They are socioeconomically corralled concomitantly with low levels of education and high levels of mental health battles that see many degenerate to drug and alcohol misuse and dependencies. Four in five leave prison with no employment prospects. 

More than half of the incarcerated did not have a permanent address during the month before imprisonment. Despite the claim that two-thirds have a fixed address to go to upon leaving prison, the grim reality is it is not true. It is a tick-the-box ruse to score liberty. More than half leave prison to insecure accommodation, transience or some form of homelessness.

More than 80 per cent of the incarcerated have not completed secondary school education. Two in three did not reach Year 8. Education is a social determinant of good health. Comparatively, the primary and secondary health of the incarcerated is insidiously poor. 

I have written widely over decades about the exclusion of prisoners from Medicare, the Pharmaceuticals Benefits Scheme and also the National Disability Insurance Scheme. This discrimination is a political and moral abomination. In my view, the majority leave prison in worsening health. The incarcerated, in general, because of markedly shorter life expectancy, are "old" in their 50s. 

Poor education, poor primary health, unemployment and housing insecurity are directly linked to the poorest psychosocial outcomes. Cumulatively, they are the drivers of incarceration.

Many people upon leaving prison are not assisted by Centrelink support — often leaving without any identification documents, without health care cards and without bank accounts. These are direct links to reoffending. Eight of ten leaving prison will need to depend on Centrelink support payments.

We are a nation demanding penance through the punitive. We punish relentlessly instead of redemptively. We often do not listen to evidence. Without psycho-educative rehabilitation, you change nothing.

A significant proportion of incarcerated people are gaoled for low-level offences. An amnesty could see nearly half the national prison population released. Imagine this validation of love. They could be supported post-release through various nurturing programs, to become transformational, positive selves.

Half our prisons would disappear. What is left of the carceral estate could become educative, transformational in terms of pathways to improved selves (including educational and trade qualifications) and offer release thereafter to secure employment supported by periodic mentoring.

The story of Ngalla Maya Aboriginal Corporation is one of transformation.

I met Mervyn Eades thereabouts a decade ago. He is 51 years old. From age 13 to 31 Mervyn was in and out of prisons. He lost his 18-year-old brother Donald to suicide in an adult prison, months after being in Banksia Hill Detention Centre (BHDC). Mervyn founded Ngalla Maya on the smell of an oily rag and mentored many to believe in themselves and attend training-to-employment programs. 

I witnessed the trust former inmates had in Mervyn. I saw the opportunity to ramp up something special through Ngalla Maya. In early 2017, I produced a submission to the Commonwealth Government through the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C) – now rebadged as the National Indigenous Australians Agency – and modelled a restorative training-to-employment program for Ngalla Maya. The assessors came back with: “This can work!"

Ngalla Maya was supported with up to $1.5 million in outcomes-based funding to train and qualify up to 80 former inmates and secure them employment, and mentor them to long term employment. In April 2017, Ngalla Maya signed the contract, but they had no upfront money. Ngalla Maya was still a start-up, compliance-poor, with only $2.72 in the bank! I championed the organisation to the Commonwealth, which returned a surprising investiture of faith. The government advanced Ngalla Maya $150,000.

Ngalla Maya contracted only one remunerated employee for the first year. I cash-flow managed Ngalla Maya with the first ten months of the contract. Mervyn and I were not remunerated. By near the middle of 2018, I had assisted Ngalla Maya to enough revenue that they were able to employ a general manager and two other full-time personnel. 

Ngalla Maya succeeded in training 80 former inmates and securing employment for the majority. It took a few years to secure Mervyn visitation rights to Western Australian prisons. In the meantime, I visited the prisons to win the hearts and souls of as many as I could to help them believe in themselves.

In May 2017, I visited Acacia Prison, one hour’s drive northeast of Perth. I spoke to 12 soon-to-be-released inmates — I spoke to them of the importance to strive for self-belief. They had spent the prime of their lives gaoled. None of them had an employment history. None had completed Year 9 schooling. Days later, three of them walked out of Acacia and walked through the doors of Ngalla Maya and signed up to a five-week training course. 

All three completed the training and weeks later were employed. More than four years later they remain in full-time employment. They own their own homes. They have not just changed their lives but so too the lives of every family member — changed for the better their future hopes and hopes of their unborn, for generations to come. 

Their lives had been consumed by memories of harrowing childhoods, of sufferings unimaginable to most household Australians. They had lived their lives believing their traumas were insurmountable. 

I said to them: 

"Just turn up each day to the training. Everything will change, just turn up no matter what’s going down in your personal life.”

It is my expert assessment, born from the coalface, that all who are incarcerated are trauma-affected. The trauma appears insufferable and debilitates, vanquishing aspirations that the majority take for granted. 

It is my view, there is a pernicious misconception that trauma must be a lifelong experience, requiring unrelenting management. I believe this is not always the case and that most trauma can be disabled. 

Trauma is damaging but it should not be allowed to dominate, to make us its hostage. Wounds can heal. When they have healed completely there may remain only the memory of wounds, but this is a different type of trauma; to some, it is viewed as post-traumatic stress. It can lead to other wounds or to self-harm, so it is important to educate oneself about trauma and contextualise trauma.

Too often we are sold vacillating emancipating approaches of how to re-engage with society — approaches of life-long self-management but which steal years of life or imprison the mind. This demands the vanquishing of the positive self. 

We need to re-educate ourselves so that trauma, whether incidental, cumulative or collective, doesn't dominate the individual, a family or society. This is not about "moving on", but about not allowing trauma or anyone who professes to be a trauma recovery expert to invalidate the affected. It's about not automatically assuming every trauma needs life-long management. I believe we must validate the trauma-affected and then try to disable the trauma. Trauma should not become the oppressor. 

I believe in radical approaches, asking people who have endured traumatic events to remain steadfast in their belief in their positive self so this journey need not be reduced. We contextualise our lives and where there is grief, we soak it up — but we must not drown in grief. 

My nine-year-old self was a victim of heinous sexual abuse in an institutional setting. I grieved but fought to not let the grief drown me. My compassion for others defines my values and I have a "no time-wasting" approach — we have to get back on our feet, to stay solid in our thinking. 

Ngalla Maya raised the bar because for too long it had been low. In 2019, I secured Ngalla Maya a subsequent Commonwealth contract, this one up to nearly $6 million in outcomes-based funding. It gave 240 former inmates a shot at changing their lives. Ngalla Maya has helped change the lives of more than 300 former inmates, of whom, without the organisation, more than half would have been reincarcerated.

Despite my irregular slagging of the Commonwealth Government – in calling them the most racist government in this country in my living experience, among other frustrations – in the end it did fund Ngalla Maya. So, credit for doing so. The Western Australian Government is yet to fund Ngalla Maya and this is reprehensible. 

When I handed the reins to Ngalla Maya in mid-2018, I remember advising that the whole operation was reliant on funding — it may only survive as long as the tenure of its funding contracts. If this was to be the case, which appeared likely and still does, the imperative is to do everything it can to ensure as many of those given opportunity, succeed. 

Ngalla Maya has shown the way. Every government should mass-invest in improving the lives and circumstances of the incarcerated — leaving no one behind. We need to spread the love but not distort the love to the point we debilitate. I have worked with the most trauma-affected people and I urged them to get back on their feet. The penal estate is not redemptive and restorative. It keeps people down and out.

One of the first to be supported by Ngalla Maya was a 21-year-old male who had been living street-homeless since he was 14. He lived homeless throughout the training stretch. We picked him up each day and drove him to the training. He graduated. He has worked ever since. Because we believed in him, he began to believe in himself.

There is nothing as profoundly powerful as forgiveness. The forgiving of others validates self-worth, builds bridges and positive lives. Forgiveness, cultivated and understood, keeps families and society solid as opposed to the corrosive anger which diminishes people into the darkest tumult, into mental illnesses and aberrances. 

Earlier this year, I was instrumental in the launching of a class-action lawsuit against Western Australia’s children’s prison, Banksia Hill Detention Centre (BHDC). The class action thus far has registered 500 plaintiffs. We were not put on this earth to betray our children. The most vulnerable children I have met are children who finish up in juvenile detention. 

There are 17 children’s prisons in Australia: seven in New South Wales; two each in the Northern Territory, Queensland and Victoria and one each in Western Australia, South Australia, Tasmania and the ACT.

During the hard border lockdown of Western Australia in March 2020, with all residents required to isolate in their homes, the majority of outreach services stopped. All outreach services to BHDC pulled the pin. For years I had begged the Western Australian State Government to allow high calibre and wide-reaching restorative models into BHDC. I had won the support of Minister for Emergency Services and Corrective Services Fran Logan, but the battle to get us in was an arduous one. 

However, when outreach services withdrew, (then) Department of Corrective Services Commissioner Tony Hassall, deputy commissioner Cheryl Clay and corrections staff member Kymberley McKay summoned me and a colleague, Megan Krakouer, to BHDC that same day. We began immediately! 

The next morning, I said to Megan and to my 20-year-old daughter Connie Georgatos"We may never get this opportunity again, so let us do everything we can to assist as many children as possible."

We focused on female detainees, aged 11 to 18. When we commenced at BHDC, there was a female detainee population of 18. I applied to the Children’s Court to release as many as possible and it did. We provided substantive post-release support. Within eight weeks we had more than halved the female detainee population to just seven detainees. 

Eight weeks later, by 22 May — our time was up. We were not as needed with quarantining more relaxed and the services that had pulled out now returning. We had taken it upon ourselves to set a demonstrative example of what works restoratively and we took psychosocial support to a whole new level.

The children of BHDC need one-on-one support – intense psychosocial and psycho-educative transformational models must be crafted around one-on-one support and nurture. If BHDC has a detainee population of 100 then deploy 100 nurturers and you will not have children returning to BHDC dozens of times, nor the hideous statistic of 70 per cent finishing up in adult prisons.

Acacia Prison accounts for nearly one in four of Western Australia’s incarcerated adults. Tragically, there were two suicides there earlier last year — one of a 19-year-old not long after serving stretches in BHDC. Serco privately manages Acacia Prison for the Government of Western Australia. 

In October 2020, I secured nine months of restorative work in Acacia – with a focus on reducing self-harms. Despite years of my criticising Serco and various governments over their maltreatment of asylum seekers, refugees and prisoners, good people in Serco who know me as a deliverer supported my small team to work in Acacia.

During these nine months, we engaged with 1200 of the 1500 prisoner population (substantively with 400 prisoners) and supported 70 of them post-release. We supported some to education, a few to university and many to employment.

Once again, I advised my colleagues that we may never get this opportunity in future. I told them that once contracts are secured by Serco from the Government of Western Australia, they may not continue with us. Indeed, 25 June was our last day, despite Acacia recording in the final quarter of last year and in the first quarter of this year its lowest toll of self-harms and incidents.

Political will is needed to end the moral abomination that is Australia's punitive carceral estate. Many of the transformational prison stories we supported are worthy of being told on ABC’s Australian Story.

If you would like to speak to someone about suicide you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Gerry Georgatos, the son of CALD migrants, is a suicide prevention and poverty researcher with an experiential focus. He has a Master in Human Rights Education and a Master in Social Justice Advocacy & Civil Rights Arbitration. He is the national coordinator of the National Suicide Prevention & Trauma Recovery Project (NSPTRP). You can follow Gerry on Twitter @GerryGeorgatos.

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