A Nation of Captives

I hate feeling any kind of restriction. From being told I can’t do something that I want to, to physically being trapped. When I was seven I spent two hours in a lift with a whole bunch of other people as we waited to be rescued. It has only been in recent years that I can travel in a lift without my heart rate increasing. Good thing that, seeing as we live on the 7th floor of an apartment building. I even hate it when my head or arm gets caught in the awkward act of getting dressed, particularly when multiple layers are involved.

Extrapolate that feeling of restriction to someone who has been cuffed with their hands firmly behind their back. Been put in the rear of what is essentially a panel van with barely any light and held on remand until a significant portion of their life is sentenced away. Suddenly their ability to walk down the street to buy milk has been taken away from them, they are unable to call a mate for a chat, connect with a caring support worker or hug their loved ones. Suddenly their time is not their own, and over so many layers freedom has been removed.

The experience of incarceration is becoming all too common in our country. Nationwide we have close to 35,000 (186 / 100,000 of the population) men and women in our prisons, which represents a 400% increase in the last three decades. We spend on average $80,000 per prisoner per year. I’ll leave you to do the math, but relatively speaking we are rushing headlong down the path of our US counterparts where the community is haemorrhaging under an annual prison bill of $60 Billion.

So why have we got such high numbers in our prisons? Mirko Bagaric http://goo.gl/FNgBF8 writing in The Conversation says, in many cases, imprisonment is just the wanton infliction of gratuitous punishment by an unthinking legislature and a reflexive judiciary. In his book Seeking Peace, Johann Christoph Arnold believes that much of the politics of law and order has more to do with violence and fear than with peace. It’s true isn’t we all want a peaceful society where we can get on with living life the way we want to. There seems to be a growing perception that one way to achieve this nirvana is to lock up people who commit crimes, no matter what that crime was. We also ignore significant research that says incarceration, whilst removing someone from society for a time is more likely to cause recidivism than a suspended sentence or a more innovative approach to rehabilitation. Being in prison enmeshes someone in a criminal learning environment it also labels and stigmatises. To the extent that when people come out of prison quite often they are unable to find suitable housing, enter into education or find an employer willing to give an ex-con a go.

In turn there is a wider impact on the prisoners family and broader society. The family, already likely to be suffering disadvantage, tends to enter further into the poverty cycle, which lasts for generations and is incredibly hard to break. These factors tend to set the ex-con and potentially others in the family on a path toward violent crime. I was also staggered to read in a Smart Justice fact sheet http://goo.gl/Pt1ln1 that 42% of men and 33% of women in prison have an acquired brain injury with a possible intellectual disability and that 42% of the prison population are under a psychiatric risk warning. 87% of women prisoners have experienced abuse. 45.3% of women were unemployed and 63.7% of men at the time of incarceration, with only 14.1% of females and 5.6% of male prisoners finishing secondary school, having a trade or finishing tertiary education. And before I bore you with too many statistics 58% of inmates in Australian prisons have been there before.

A quote from the Victorian Institute of Forensic Mental Health in 2005 sums it up well at least for a significant percentage of the prison population.

Ignored, mismanaged, released unprepared, rapidly reoffending and returning to prison. This is all too often the story of the mentally ill offender, repeated and repeated.

So what is going to make a difference? What is going to move us towards the peaceful society we all long for? The Smart Justice organisation believes that as a society we need to;

  • Tackle the underlying factors such as poverty, poor levels of education, the effects of disadvantage, including income inequality. They see we need to invest in child protection, family support, housing, employment, education, mental health and drug and alcohol problems.
  • Expand court programs that address the causes for example Collingwood’s Neighbourhood Justice Centre which brings court proceedings and supporting agencies closer together.
  • Provide intensive support to prisoners pre and post release, particularly around housing, education and employment
  • Promote appropriate alternatives to prison such as community based orders and suspended sentences.

Whilst all of these are good systemic responses, I can’t help feeling its not enough. Our attitudes also need reforming. I live in inner city Melbourne and at times it can be interesting to say the least as a desperate scream rises from the street or a distressed child cries for love. Whilst, as much as I would like to rescue everyone, I can’t! In the words of Bart Campolo, ‘some people’s ticket has already been punched’ meaning their way of life is so ingrained or their capacity is such that they can’t make significant changes.

I guess at that point we can go one of two paths, the first path is the one ruled by fear and the desire to remove the one/s that make us uncomfortable including the one who commits crime. And I resonate with that, unstable people, people who are abusing alcohol and drugs, ones likely to commit crimes for whatever reason, scare me.

The second path is hard, terribly hard. A radical example of this path is the communities started by Jackie Puillinger now in many of the world’s drug hot spots. Her philosophy is that someone involved in drugs etc missed a stage in their childhood where they should have been the centre of attention. So when someone comes into the community they are not expected to take part in community life and as they detox they have someone by their side 24hr a day, to get them food, clean them, play games, walk with them, pray for them, whatever is needed. Jackie believes this is the beginning of healing.

Most of us will not be able to embrace the prisoner or drug addict to this extent however when I had the privilege to visit a Pullinger community for a morning I saw some principles that perhaps we can employ as we think about prisons and the society we all want to be a part of. Principles such as seeing through the eyes of love or working to build relationship, being prepared to invite the stranger into our circles. Creating opportunities for connection and for meaningful work and in the midst of this listening to their aspirations and hope for the future. Helping them to see that they have gifts, skills, abilities and perspectives that are valuable. This may not shave off all the rough edges and thankfully it wont recreate them in our image, but it just might see a reduction in prison numbers and more open and accepting climate created within our communities and beyond. Perhaps government resources could be put into creating this type of community rather than preparing for more prison communities.