‘TWO-MINUTE NOODLES!’ Lee is leaning forward on the edge of her sofa, animated. She’d recently visited an old jail-mate who was still in the Emu Plains prison in Sydney’s west, and the two women had reminisced about the noodles. ‘They brought in pre-cooked meals, and you’d get dinner around 3.30 pm. We weren’t supposed to reheat the meals later, but we did because 3.30 was too early to eat. We’d get a little packet of chicken wings, three wings each. Later, we’d all put our chicken wings together, break the chicken off, andget the two-minute noodles and a can of mushrooms that we’d buy on buy-up, and a can of diced capsicum, and make up a meal from that that was more tasty than the pre-packaged food.’
Previously, things had been better. The women had been growing vegetables, some doing TAFE courses in horticulture, and they cooked their own meals from scratch in cottages. That was when they were at Berrima Gaol, in the New South Wales Southern Highlands. Berrima Gaol was, Lee says, ‘amazing’. She was a poker-machine addict who was jailed for fraud. It was at Berrima that she began to understand how the pokies blocked out earlier traumas. Just before she went to jail she had a breakdown, and through a family dispute lost contact with her young son. In jail she learnt techniques for managing her depression. Weighed down by shame and sorrow, she was encouraged to focus on things she could take pride in.
A former office worker, Lee helped in the jail’s education area, where the literacy and numeracy needs of every new admission were assessed. She recalled an Aboriginal woman in her fifties who couldn’t read or write. The woman eventually got prescription glasses and was soon, for the first time in her life, sending cards to her faraway children and grandchildren.
Lee had been stunned at the poor life skills of many of the inmates. At Berrima, women who couldn’t cook or wash clothes had to do it themselves, and learnt from their fellow inmates, so they would leave prison at least equipped to do household tasks.
Then, in 2011, Berrima Gaol was closed. In a rare statistical blip in Australia’s incarceration history, the state’s prison numbers were decreasing. ‘And it was one of the saddest days. I’ll never forget we all sat around with the officers, trying to figure how to keep it open. Because there was only sixty of us down there, and they focused on us individually, and the officers treated you like a normal person. And if they saw you upset or sad, they spent time with you – not like the large prisons.’
Some of the women were transferred to the much bigger Emu Plains Correctional Centre where, Lee said, you’d wait weeks to see a counsellor. ‘I went there, I think it was in October, and I left in March. I saw welfare about twice in that whole time.’
Pre-packaged cooked food was brought in from the men’s prison.
Washing was sent to a laundry.
There were educational and support programs, but they were unwieldy and unreliable. ‘It’s a matter of getting into the course. Then it’s a matter of the actual person that runs the course turning up all the time for the course to run fully, and the course being completed because, in a big jail, you might have shutdowns and lock-ins. And you’ll have twenty to thirty girls in a room, so the teacher is not going to work with you.’
ON THE MORNING of 29 April 2015, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop appeared on television looking like she had not eaten or slept for days. At 3.30 am, she had been told that gunshots had rung out at Indonesia’s Cilacap prison. Australians Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran had been executed. The nation had been in a period of suspended grief, desperately willing the Indonesian president not to kill these people who had clearly changed their ways.
Former drug traffickers Chan and Sukumaran were, Bishop said, ‘examples of the hope and transformation that can come about through reflection, rehabilitation and remorse’. Prime Minister Abbott said emphatically: ‘Both these young Australians were fully rehabilitated while in prison.’
The casual observer could be forgiven for thinking that Australia was a nation committed to the ethos of renewal and investment in all of its citizens. Australia was built on the backs of convicts making a new start. But two centuries on, we do not do offender rehabilitation well.
Prison numbers are the highest they’ve ever been. Australian Bureau of Statistics research showed thirty-six thousand people were in prison on an average day in Australia in 2015; a third of them in New South Wales. Most inmates have been there before – for 42 per cent of them, it was less than two years ago. There is little on offer in prison. A 2013–14 Productivity Commission report found that Australia-wide, only 32.7 per cent of eligible prisoners were in education courses. Programs, either in prison or post-release, that assist with re-entry to society are often inadequate, and too few. Housing and employment assistance, and mental health and drug and alcohol support, are much cheaper than imprisonment. The average daily cost of a prisoner in 2013–14 was $292, according to the Productivity Commission.
But law-and-order politics hold sway. Few politicians will publicly back a commitment to those on society’s fringe who have offended.
One who tried was Greg Smith. In his newly established barristers’ chambers, the former Attorney-General of NSW gazes at framed photographs of himself with John Howard, Tony Abbott, Pope John Paul II and – somewhat incongruously for this mild-mannered, bespectacled Catholic of the hard right – American consumer advocate Erin Brockovich, who scrawled, ‘For Greg, kickin ass.’
For much of his time as Attorney-General in the O’Farrell Coalition government, Greg Smith was derided by radio shock jocks, some influential police and other critics for being ‘soft’ on crime. A self-described moral conservative, he confounded many observers with his approach to criminal justice – which, he says, was not religiously motivated, as many have speculated. It was purely pragmatic.
In his first interview since retiring from politics at the 2015 NSW election, Greg Smith told Griffith Review he had consciously set out on a mission of reform. ‘A lot of people were in jail for non-dangerous offences. They were not violent people. But once they got out of jail, they would offend again and the offence would be more serious second time around. A lot were addicted to drugs and alcohol. My theory was if you could get them home, get them help and get them a job, you’d be doing the community a great service.’
His theory was honed during a career in criminal law, including five years as the NSW Deputy Director of Public Prosecutions. Both in opposition and then in government, it was clear that prison costs were a big problem. ‘So I used that as the impetus to try and make NSW the first state to turn that around.’ All the other states, he said, were trying to get tougher, including his Liberal colleagues in Victoria.
Greg Smith points to half-a-dozen outcomes he is proud of: a specialist drug-rehabilitation prison; and a third Drug Court – a concept used internationally and introduced by Labor – to attempt to break the cycle of drug use and crime. There were also changes to the Bail Act that meant more juveniles were granted bail and avoided incarceration; an extra budget allocation of $20 million for education programs in prison, which Greg Smith admits did not go far; and the creation of an inspector of custodial services, a sort of ombudsman ‘to make sure everything’s done properly’. In his bid to lower prison numbers and offer prison alternatives that might reduce re-offending, Greg Smith was emboldened by what was unfolding internationally. ‘One of the things that gave me momentum was what was happening in America and England. In both those countries there were moves by right-wing governments away from a law-and-order focus, realising it was costing them a lot of money and not reducing the crime rate. There was a mood in the [Liberal] party that my ideas were convincing.’
But there were never enough resources, and offender support is ‘not electorally popular’. With 2GB’s Ray Hadley calling him ‘weak-kneed’, and Greg Smith falling out with Liberal colleagues over other matters, he was dropped as Attorney-General by Mike Baird, the new premier, in 2014.
And now? ‘The jails are exploding, there’s more trouble, more escapees, riots in Victoria. And governments don’t want to spend so much money building new jails. It costs about $500 million to build a medium-sized jail of about five hundred beds.’
WHEN IMPRISONMENT IS seen as the only solution, there will always be more prisoners. Mark Halsey, a professor of criminal justice at Flinders University, and his colleague Simone Deegan followed fourteen young South Australian male offenders over ten years from 2003, and have published the results of their research in Young Offenders: Crime, Prison and Struggles for Desistance (Palgrave, 2015). ‘Desistance’ is the criminological term focusing on pathways away from trouble – the opposite of the more traditionally used recidivism.
Some of the young men they tracked did manage to desist from offending. Key factors included supportive families and partners, living away from previous criminal networks, stable employment, concerted help with drug and alcohol problems, and parole officers who took a supportive rather than punitive approach. But one man, Chris, was not a success story. In his mid-twenties, he had recently been sentenced to fourteen years after a series of violent crimes. In court, the authors write in their introduction, ‘even the prosecution team agreed Chris had one of the most troubled and deprived early life courses they’d encountered. Still, he had to pay for what he’d done. He had to pay even though it was broadly acknowledged that his was a life bereft of the building blocks necessary for carving out any semblance of a conventional existence.’
Chris had spent most of his days since the age of thirteen in a custodial facility of some kind. By twenty-one, he had been released from custody twenty times. ‘The colloquial definition of insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly in the hope that a different result will arise,’ wrote the frustrated researchers.
Prison, in other words, can be the antithesis of rehabilitation. Mark Halsey and Simone Deegan note:
Perhaps the juvenile and criminal justice systems as well as the social worlds in which they sit need to be overhauled… This would mean acknowledging that many of the ways in which we police and punish offenders inadvertently helps create (rather than rehabilitate) ‘dangerous’ or socially marginalised individuals.
ONE OF THE grimmer, ironic, truths of European settlement in Australia is that after starting with a group of prisoners, it’s the descendants of those they displaced who are now disproportionately locked up. Indigenous Australians form nearly a third of the jail population nationally.
It is hard to reconcile Matt Simms’ accounts of fire-lighting and methamphetamine-induced psychosis with the relaxed man he is now. He has a gentle and thoughtful demeanour. But one night a few years back, at Nowra, he was riding his motorbike in the early hours of the morning near the Navy’s HMAS Albatross airfield. (Long story, he shrugs apologetically.) The bike broke down, ‘some guys’ tried to take it, and Matt responded by lighting a fire in the grass. There was damage from the fire and to the letterbox that Matt pulled out of the ground and waved around when he was approached. He was charged with ‘damage and destroying property by fire – a pretty serious charge’. In the Nowra police cell ‘they put me in greens, and we were waiting for the jail transport. One of them, the sergeant, he said: “You know you’re looking at a lengthy jail term.” I actually said to the sergeant, “I can’t go to jail. I’m too sick. I’m physically, emotionally and mentally wrecked.” I would have picked up drugs in there. I was really messed up. My disease [of addiction] would have progressed.’
Matt got lucky. He was bailed, partly because his Aboriginal Legal Service solicitor arranged for him to attend the Glen on the NSW Central Coast. The Glen is a little bit of heaven for (mostly) Aboriginal men wanting to bring a halt to their drug and alcohol addictions. They come from across the state, often sent on bail, or parole, or through the Drug Court, or the Magistrates Early Referral Into Treatment program. An hour-and-a-half north of Sydney, the rehab centre – run by the Ngaimpe Aboriginal Corporation – is a scattering of small, friendly buildings in a semi-rural setting.
We’re sitting on grass freshly mown by one of the residents, under a row of casuarina trees, a soft wind blowing through them. Matt Simms is now an employee at the Glen. Initially, after he did three months’ rehab there, he went back to Nowra, and was sentenced with a twelve-month good behaviour bon
Drug and alcohol rehabilitation rarely follows a neat trajectory. Research indicates that while many people will relapse, the periods between relapse grow longer each time. Matt lasted sixteen months back on the south coast, until a relationship breakdown and other factors led him to use drugs again. ‘I went straight back into psychosis, from the first shot [of ice]. For four months I didn’t know what was real and what wasn’t. My family turned their back on me. Everyone positive in my life was gone. My self-worth just went…’ Matt dives his hand towards the ground. He was paranoid and thought people were out to get him, so he carried knives, sometimes a tomahawk. ‘I used to set traps if people came to my door. I was scared to go to sleep.’
One day he rang the Glen and asked if he could come back. ‘I had to. I was going to die. I was going to kill myself or kill someone that was close to me.’ This time he stayed longer, completing a transition program after the initial residential program, and beginning outside work. Matt’s a concreter and had ‘always worked pretty hard – I needed to pay for the drugs and alcohol’. After that second stint of rehab, he moved to Melbourne, worked in concreting again, and was then offered a job at the Glen as a support worker. He’s been there a year now, training to be a counsellor and doing a Certificate IV in community services at TAFE. ‘I was just a labourer. Now I’m helping people. I love life and love seeing people get well. I’m really passionate about me job.’
When Matt Simms first came to the Glen, narrowly avoiding prison, he was one of the 5 per cent of applicants who get in each year. With its focus on Aboriginal men and emphasis on physical activity – the local touch footy comp, the veranda and toilet block that residents built – the Glen is one of the comparatively few options around the country that offer a prison alternative, and help people break the drug, alcohol and crime nexus. There are twenty men in the twelve-week residential program and twelve in transition, where they begin to work outside and rebuild their lives. Three out of four of the current occupants said on arrival that ice was their primary drug of concern.
It’s run by Joe Coyte, a warm, open, bear of a man who did years of night shifts and other work at the Glen while his father, Vince, was CEO, then inherited that role when his father retired. Joe says the Glen’s approach is pretty simple: ‘Tryin’ to get ’em excited about living.’
Two new removable buildings, currently under construction, funded by both the Federal Department of Health and a Bunnings donation, will double the number of transition beds to one hundred a year. A small offering when there’s a chronic shortage of ice rehab options.
It’s not just about the drug users. Joe says the men who went through the Glen last year had a total of five hundred children at home. There is now a parenting program. ‘Those five hundred children are hopefully going to get their father back in their life. When we’re treating the fathers we’re thinking of the children. We want to get more guys off the street and keep ’em out of jail.’
THE GLEN, LIKE other small rehabilitative programs, doesn’t have the capacity to track long-term outcomes, and therefore prove its efficacy. But a 2013 cost-benefit analysis by Deloitte Access Economics for the Australian National Council on Drugs compared imprisonment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander offenders with community residential drug and alcohol rehab services. The financial savings from the community settings were $111,458 per offender. That included the actual costs of treatments, which were cheaper than in a prison, and the savings from better health outcomes and lower recidivism rates.
A no-brainer, it would seem – and yet prison alternatives, and comprehensive support programs for those exiting prison, struggle for funding. ABC Radio National’s Background Briefing reported in 2014 on policy changes that were threatening the work of the Community Restorative Centre (CRC), a sixty-four-year-old Sydney-based organisation that specialises in transition support for ex-prisoners. According to program director Mindy Sotiri, it effectively loses $1 million a year. While CRC continues with some shorter term post-release programs, in Sydney it has had to abandon its core men’s programs, built on what CRC did best – intensive long-term case work with a focus on housing, which is the internationally established benchmark of successful post-release support.
However, one of its programs is thriving. In Broken Hill, in the state’s far west, the Barkindji Project is funded by the Federal Government to work with Aboriginal people leaving prison. Like the now defunct Sydney program, it involves working with people three months before they leave prison, and for over a year after they leave. There are art and other cultural activities, all helping to ‘build an identity outside of offending behaviour’, and Mindy Sotiri says there’s been enthusiastic community support.
CRC’s data for the latter half of 2014 shows that only a fifth of the Barkindji Aboriginal clients had returned to prison since the project began in 2013. By contrast, the Productivity Commission found that 45.8 per cent of all prisoners released statewide in 2010–11 returned to jail within two years. One local fan is Detective Chief Inspector Mick Stoltenberg, crime manager for the NSW Barrier Local Area Command. ‘People get caught in a vicious cycle, whether they go back to jail by their own choices or dragged back by their peers. It’s a sad day to think they’ve just got to keep buildingmore jails and keep locking everyone up.’
The Aboriginal prison population presents a mountain of unmet needs. New research from the University of NSW, led by Professor Eileen Baldry and published in November 2015, looked at Aboriginal inmates’ multiple mental and cognitive disabilities as well as drug and alcohol dependency. There was a failure to diagnose early and accurately, and few services were able to adequately meet such complex needs. The study found that ‘police and prisons have become governments’ default way of managing this vulnerable group’. The ‘ justice reinvestment’ movement, initiated in the US and gaining ground in Australia with academic and corporate backers, focuses on investments in communities to prevent crime down the track. For Mindy Sotiri, it’s those structural issues – family and community strength, employment, stable housing, health services – that are more important for wellbeing, and moving on, than traditional notions of rehabilitation. ‘Historically rehabilitation, in the context of jails, was around religious reflection, looking deep into your soul to consider the error of your ways. It was very personalised. There does need to be programs that help people do that. But if that’s all there is, it’s not likely people will successfully reintegrate into society when they’re poor, desperate and drug addicted.'
Joe Coyte, CEO of the Glen, is adamant that rehabilitation cannot be short term or a band-aid.
‘Rehabilitation is about returning people back to families and communities as active members of their families and communities. Their drug and alcohol use has led to criminal behaviour. They’ve lost their spot in their families, and families have to make do without them. It’s a real sense of loss for the men and for the families.’
CON GOUVEROS IS shaking his head. He’s just changed back into shorts and T-shirt after performing three Aboriginal dances for visitors at the Glen, wearing body paint and a red loincloth. He can’t quite believe it. The last time he performed in public he was about nine or ten years old. It was in front of the Sydney Opera House, and he was in traditional Greek costume.
One of the few non-indigenous men at the Glen, he’d been invited to train with the dance group. ‘The honour,’ he says in wonder. Con is thirty-six. His two front teeth are missing, and he seems a bit shell-shocked, but he’s feeling pretty good.
Back in Sydney recently for the wedding of one of his oldest friends, the groom said to him: ‘I’m proud of you Con, I’m proud of you, what you’re doing for yourself.’ His mother and sister had been up to visit, from Liverpool, in Sydney’s south-west. ‘Every time they see me, they’ve got this smile on their faces.’
A few months before, they had taken out Apprehended Violence Orders against him. Con says while he never physically hurt his family, he was aggressive, threatening and intimidating. He’d started using ice on top of his chronic drinking. He twice tried to overdose, with pills and alcohol. He was homeless, and says he just didn’t care anymore. ‘This year has been rock bottom for me. I was isolated, in my own world.’ He breached an AVO and went to jail for two months. He was bailed on condition that he went through rehab at the Glen. Ten weeks into the residential program, and about to enter the transition program, Con has been doing plenty of reflection. His life wasn’t always out of control. ‘At my school formal, when I was eighteen, I had two beers.’ His father – ‘a good father’ – had a drinking problem. Con’s own drinking escalated over the years that he worked as a glazier for a wardrobe manufacturer. When his father died of prostate cancer, ‘That was hard. I never got help. I thought I could fix it myself.’
Now, Con is working on the new buildings at the Glen, enjoying the slow progress as the structures take shape. When he can’t help because he has to attend a medical check, or another rehab activity, ‘I feel like I’m letting them down.’
The previous weekend, Con had joined most of the residents and staff in the local Relay for Life, a Cancer Council fundraiser. The Glen team had walked or run around an athletics track, through a day and a night, camping on site with the other teams. Cancer survivors and relatives from the other groups told their stories. Con was moved by the whole experience. ‘It felt good to be contributing. You never do that when you’re in addiction. My dad was hopefully watching up there. Hopefully he’d be proud of me.’
FLINDERS UNIVERSITY’S MARK Halsey and Simone Deegan write about generativity – the desire and capacity to care for the self and for others. Research has linked generativity to desistance from crime, especially when people make sense of a damaged past, and use that to protect others in the future.
In Young Offenders, Halsey and Deegan also call for societal acknowledgement of those getting back on track: ‘…there is a desperate need for… social certification/validation for people released from custody.’ Compare, they say, the rites of passage of primary to high school, or turning cadets into soldiers, or amateur athletes into Olympic gold medallists. What about the work required in ‘turning prisoners back into citizens’ and then acknowledging that achievement? ‘What formal recognition…is awarded to those who have desisted from crime?’
For Joe Coyte, a crucial recognition is employment. And, ‘We’re not talking about people that have got a good resumé.’ He wants employers to step up. To be prepared to give people a second chance. He’s built a rewarding relationship with the regional division of Bunnings. Men in the transition program are doing work experience with Bunnings, and in the last two years, Joe says, ten of them – 60 per cent – have secured full-time jobs there. ‘I say to [the men] this has nothing to do with the Glen. You’ve got to earn it. Bunnings won’t give you a job if you’re useless.’
Joe Coyte was embarrassed that one man who’d been going well at Bunnings left the job after six months to work elsewhere. But he was told by a Bunnings manager: ‘That’s a success. We’ve given him the confidence to get another job.’
The Glen is a sanctuary of goodwill: from the young ex-KPMG accountant, Alex Lee, who first came there as a volunteer to help with finances and is now the full-time development manager, to Rod Knight, a carpenter with the Department of Defence in Townsville, who travelled over two thousand kilometres to be the volunteer construction project manager for the new buildings. Both men were found through Jawun, the corporate Indigenous-partnership group.
Joe Coyte won’t be waiting for political dialogue to progress beyond the entrenched law-and-order rhetoric. The need to deal with the stigma of addiction and a criminal past, and find employment, is too urgent. ‘We could wait for government to change, but we could wait a long time. As a society, we need to lead this discussion, lead this change.’