“Our concern centres on the fact that the apparent rehabilitation of Mr Chan and Mr Sukumaran was not taken into account. Rehabilitation is a fundamental aspect of successful prison systems. Mr Chan became an ordained Christian priest; Mr Sukumaran became a renowned artist. Both were spending their time in jail helping to reform and improve the lives of other prisoners in the Indonesian prison system.” Julie Bishop, 29 April 2015.
The circumstances surrounding the deaths of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran highlight not only the senselessness of execution as punishment, but also the effectiveness of successful prisoner rehabilitation. In this feature, Ros Marsden examines what rehabilitation in Australia looks like for prisoners and asks if we can start reform even before an offender is sentenced.
On 24 March 2015, Lentara UnitingCare, the Uniting Church in Australia Presbytery of Port Phillip West, the Royal District Nursing Service Homeless Persons Program and Yarra Housing presented a one-day conference, Out Into the Cold – Where to Now? The conference, held at the Hopper’s Crossing Uniting Church, was funded by the Presbytery of Port Phillip West’s Simpson Bequest.
The conference brought together people working to support the successful reintegration of offenders into the community after their release from prison.
A total of 93 people attended from a wide range of disciplines, including employment agencies, mental health services, housing services, asylum seeker support agencies, Department of Corrections, Department of Justice and agencies specifically providing prison support, pre- and post- release.
A common theme that emerged at the conference was the disconnect between state government initiatives and the day-to-day issues of people recently released from prison. Participants noted the lack of emphasis the government currently gives to community based rehabilitation programs.
Keynote speaker, Christopher Trotter, is a professor in the Social Work Department at Monash University and director of the Criminal Justice Research Consortium. Prof Trotter cited evidence that if a support person demonstrated high levels of socialisation and empathy, then the offender would be influenced by these models of behaviour and have more chance of a better outcome.
The conference highlighted the need for a post-release support information package for every person leaving prison to ensure they can access basic services. In addition to this, participants emphasised the need for careful planning for released prisoners in relation to securing accommodation, employment and a range of support services, particularly health related assistance.
From a congregational perspective, the conference offered the opportunity to create ‘Communities of Hope’ for people exiting prison. A key objective was to look at ways to offer assistance which also built quality relationships between all involved within a safe and supported environment.
A current resident of Judy Lazarus Transitional Centre – which provides a supervised pathway back into society for selected prisoners nearing the end of their sentence – spoke about his journey through the Victorian justice system. He noted that the centre provided him with the self-confidence, motivation and opportunity to turn his life around.
At the end of the conference, participants agreed that there was a need to work more collaboratively in order to address current service gaps. A steering group has been formed to continue to develop a plan of action based on the conference findings.
The personal story
One of the speakers at the Out Into The Cold conference, Kevin, spoke of his journey following his release from prison after five- and-a-half years in a correctional facility, noting that he overcame a range of personal and societal barriers upon his release. He is now in full employment as a result of long-term support through the Communal Justice Project at Lentara UnitingCare. When it was first suggested that he go to Lentara he thought ‘bloody church group’, but at the conference, he commended their care and support.
“I made the decision when I went to jail that it wasn’t going to change me. It changed me dramatically,” Kevin said.
“People talk about getting out of prison – you never get out of prison. You may escape the actual walls but it will stay with you forever. But with proper support, with community help, people can and do get up again.”
Actually being released from prison was the first very small step on Kevin’s journey to ‘freedom’.
“The worst thing about being released is that people on the street do not respect your space. That was the scariest thing for me.
“In jail you keep your metre distance otherwise you get belted and after five-and-a-half years of keeping my metre distance I was walking down the street dancing, just trying to stay away from people because it was just so alien. People just don’t respect your space and they walk straight through you.”
Another challenge for former prisoners is the preconceived ideas of others. Kevin spoke emotionally of an experience he had while working with a charity. Even after working with a co-worker for 12 months, his colleague refused to let him work unsupervised.
“Simple as it sounds, ridiculous as it sounds, that hurt me more than someone calling me a crim. That person should have seen what I had done, seen what my worth was and judged me on that, not on my past.”
Kevin spoke of the importance of training programs within prison. While there were still barriers to overcome, training and education showed prospective employers that he was willing to commit to something.
“A company took a chance with me knowing full well about my history, knowing full well that they could see I was big and ugly and I really didn’t fit their mould. But the company took a risk and hopefully I’ve paid back that risk they’ve taken. Proudly, I was the acting operations manager for three weeks while my manager was overseas.
“I continue to study. I want to emphasise strongly that, apart from housing, study is the most important thing people can have. If everyone in jail gets their fork lift licence and their occupational first aid, that will help them get a job. Basically I just want to say is what people need is not empathy or sympathy, they need respect, not just from you but from themselves. If they don’t respect themselves, they’re not going to respect laws, they’re not going to respect communities; you have to have self-respect and you only get self-respect if you feel worthwhile.
“You need to emphasise strengths and do not judge.”
Australian criminal defence lawyer Russell Marks, in his book Crime & Punishment: Offenders and Victims in a Broken Justice System (Redback 2015) argues that prison increases the chances of an offender committing further crimes and that restorative justice and community correction is the way forward. He believes that finding a job after release is almost impossible and that medical, dental and mental health problems are “rarely addressed properly inside”. Added to that, the rigid atmosphere inside does not prepare prisoners for taking care of themselves after release, particularly if friends have lost contact and they only have ex-prisoners for support.
Marks also blames the media for playing on outrage and painting offenders in simplistic terms of evil villain motivated by evil intent. He gives examples of journalists littering their copy with words like thug, coward and scum without questioning whether the offender may be a “kid who fell through the cracks.”
The author questions the crime and punishment model and believes that because matters heard in the magistrates’ courts can be less serious, there may be a chance to assist offenders to reform. Marks suggests exploring models like ‘community conferencing’ before sentencing, or a NSW model called ‘forum sentencing’ and the Victorian model of ‘group conferencing’. These models can range from face-to-face meetings with victims through to intervention plans but all these models rely on good resourcing and excellent convenors.
Ultimately Marks states that we need social solutions to social problems and that offenders often struggle with several forms of disadvantage. “It is really a failure by the entire society, and one that society has a responsibility to address” the author concludes.
Mark Zirnsak, director of the Justice and International Mission unit, said the Uniting Church is planning a significant public campaign in Victoria for the state government to look at alternatives to the current justice system.
“The prison focused policies of the previous State government have resulted in an increase in the number of people who reoffend after leaving prison,” Dr Zirnsak said.
“We will be advocating for programs and responses to people who break the law that take them off the path from becoming serious criminals and which reduce crime rates by preventing crime. Such responses are good for everyone as less people become victims of crime and fewer people are in prisons.”
Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body. (Hebrews 13:3)