When gaol is better than Newstart

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(Image via @forwardstl / Flickr)

Saying that “the best form of welfare is a job” is like saying “the best form of hospitalisation is perfect health”, writes former Newstart recipient, Leisa Woodman.

I WAS HAVING a casual conversation with a friend who happened, as a result of his activism, to have spent some time in gaol.

I asked him what it was like in there and was expecting tales of dank survival, inedible food and “shivs”. Instead, he described minimum security prison in Australia as a slightly dangerous secondment camp with gaming consoles and, if participating in rehabilitation, a chef.

I could not help but compare this to my time on Newstart in Sydney, where the only accommodation available to the unemployed was an unregistered boarding house. The place was full of black mould, a hazard that releases substances called mycotoxins. These have been used by the U.S. military as biowarfare agents because of their uniquely negative impact on the immune system. I remember that the shower next to my room ran constantly and created a damp environment like a crypt that fed this mould and gave me a persistent cough. Tantalisingly, this water was generally cold, since the hot water tank was designed for a small family and there were up to 12 people crammed into the place, including a couple behind a partition in the living room.

Since there was no air-conditioning and not even any insulation, sleep was near impossible in summer — although one could have a cold shower, I suppose. So many inconsiderate people lived there that the balcony doors were always open and mosquitoes would buzz in clouds. It was an infuriating exercise in futility if you decided to try and keep the doors closed and anyone who began this project gave up after a few days of slamming.

One of the rooms was occupied by a guy who, judging from the little plastic bags all over the place and the cars pulling up at 3 am, was selling drugs through the window. I came to recognise “drug people” as being dressed in very expensive and gaudy soccer tracksuits, the top always matching the pants.

Next to him, was a woman who clearly should have been in psychiatric care. She would wake us all as she wandered around screaming that people were looking in her windows.

I was hanging out some washing once (the clothesline was a broken hills hoist, laying on its side) and was in time to see a resident vomit onto the concrete from the balcony. The vomit remained there; the stain might be there still.

The filth, the doors, the insects. I couldn’t afford to go out so I just stayed in my room to avoid the rest of the house. It all slowly ate away at my humanity.

I was physically assaulted in that house but my confidence was so shattered I did not recognise it as unacceptable until months later. I told myself it was just part of living with strange men, that they would barge into your room — I should have kept the door locked.

When I left the house, the landlady, who would frequently and without warning storm through it threatening to throw us all into the street because the business was “too much for her”, stole my $800 bond.

The next place I went and inspected within my price range had men in stained tracksuit pants shuffling around like smelly ghosts, with no indoor lights but (conveniently!) a massive hole in the outside wall with bricks strewn around at the bottom. It looked like war. I may have been safer in tent city.

Of course, to top it all off, there was the fever-pitch of anxiety that one experiences on Newstart over food. How to afford it, where to get it and what to do when it runs out. I ate expired food. I ate food with mould on it. I ate food that tasted so bad I could hardly swallow it, food that most people would consider off-cuts and food that had bugs in it. With depressing regularity, I ate no food at all. As a psychological remnant of this period, I will often now overeat to the point of bursting, simply because I have developed, through repetition, a fear of starvation.

What is the true purpose of treating people who are experiencing unemployment – or who have a chronic illness but don’t qualify for disability allowance – in this way? We should be incentivising volunteer work, study and gainful work, not gaol, where at least you eat every day in stable accommodation.

It isn’t unreasonable to ask, how neatly does this apparent relationship between poverty and incarceration map onto the expansion of privately-owned prisons in Australia, run by international companies like Serco and G4S? Serco describes its business model as one of “organic growth”. There isn’t much that is “organic” about sprawling multinationals who profit from war, emergency, illness and crime. However this term, in a business sense, has come to mean springing from within, as opposed to acquisition or take-over.

Fresh from a series of unprofitable public-sector acquisitions over the last few years, Serco needs new business. How precisely does one grow the disaster business ethically — especially after one’s penchant for price gouging has been publicly exposed?

Criminologist Robert Agnew described a "General Strain Theory", whereby individuals are moved to engage in anti-social behaviour through negative relationships and unattainable goals. He was particularly interested in the effect on the lower classes of an excessive society obsessed with glamour and concluded that significant strain was evident enough to be a cause of crime.

When talking about things far lower on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, like food and shelter, this pushing of the vulnerable towards crime could only be amplified.

Yet, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has been adamant that his answer to the emergence of an underclass in Australia will not be to raise people out of poverty by increasing the Newstart allowance, along with addressing housing and homelessness. He plans instead to expand the prison into our communities with increased surveillance, an industry in which Serco also has interests.

Why, we must ask, does Morrison continue to endorse Serco? This is a company which has also come under scrutiny for poor conditions in Australia’s immigration detention centres. Again a venture that is obviously unnecessarily inhumane, in order to act as a form of widespread behavioural deterrent through threat — a clear mirror of how we now treat our unemployed.

Saying that “the best form of welfare is a job” is like saying “the best form of hospitalisation is perfect health”. It is a giant, half-baked and absurd kick in the face to our once mature and nurturing society. And here we find circularity, too, since the conditions described above are indeed a one-way ticket to, if not prison, then the public health system. The chronic health conditions which often result from a spell on Newstart make one less employable and less able to return to work.

It doesn’t make any economic sense to continue keeping people in this level of poverty, except if one factors in the existence of companies like Serco. This, along with Newstart being so very bad that it discourages demands for improved workplace conditions — and, of course, whistleblowing. When people say in comment sections “why doesn’t anyone speak up?”, this, you can now say, is why.

I do not diminish the experiences of those in prison and I know that conditions vary widely. Nor do I make an argument for worse prisons — rehabilitation has a track record of success, where deterrence does not. However, I simply find it a point of interest that so many people who talk about the rate of Newstart omit the fact that it is brutal punishment of the body, from which one may never fully recover. And for what reason?

Randomly administered punishment has a word, though it is blunt now from overuse: terror.

You can follow Leisa Woodman on Twitter @LeisaWoodman.

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