Australian penal system lacks Indigenous understanding


Many Indigenous individuals struggle with community reintegration upon being released from prison, 75 per cent of whom reoffend on a national basis, elevating concerns the penal system lacks a holistic understanding of what Indigenous rehabilitation encompasses.

“Certainly some people imprisoned have been there before, so there is that kind of recycling,” said Paul Mazerolle, director of violence research and prevention program at Griffith University. “What we want to work against is the view that prisons become a right of passage and that they become this necessary step on the status hierarchy for certain individuals.”

The former editor of the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology said strong community support systems often dissuade prisoners from reoffending.

“The vast majority of people that are in prison are going to end up out of prison, and we know that the transitions are a bit easier when someone has a significant other in their lives, so whether that is an aunt or a partner or a parent or a grandparent – that’s really important,” said Mazerolle, who immigrated to Australia from Canada 12 years ago.

Professor John Rynne, one of Mazerolle’s research colleagues, said support systems have also been known to adversely affect former prisoners, whose susceptibility to persuasion from respected community members could land them back behind bars.

A “young bloke who’d been on the piss”, Rynne recalled, was compelled – while unlicensed – to drive a valued member of the community into town, but was quickly apprehended by police.

“From his perspective he had no choice,” said Rynne, a Griffith University professor. “He was obliged, under community rules.”

But, for the most part, elders are providing beneficial mentoring programs, which alleviate a lot of the burden felt by indigenous inmates. The Northern Territory, Rynne said, has a terrific program other states should try to emulate.

He said varying underlying reasons contribute to the high rates of recidivism among Indigenous populations, one of which is becoming increasingly disconcerting.

“There is a lot of drying out that happens in prison,” said Rynne, who specialises in understanding adult populations faced with adversity, “They go in and get healthy – they get fed.”

As a psychologist, Rynne spends significant stretches working with long-term drug addicts, most of whom reside in dysfunctional environments. Prisons offer an opportunity “to get looked after, get a few teeth fixed, eat a bit – regular meals – no grog, no speed, no petrol.”

Indigenous neighbourhoods, he said, endure almost double the fatality rates in the Northern Territory and Western Australia than those in prison.

Compared to the communities where some individuals live, prisons are increasingly viewed as safe havens. For those facing the prospect of payback upon release – a centuries-old indigenous retaliation tradition where groups take the law into their own hands – imprisonment is favourable.

Liam Jurrah, an athletically endowed goal-kicker for Melbourne Football Club, has recently been charged with allegedly attacking his cousin, Basil Jurrah, as payback over the death of another man in 2010. The case epitomises the influence payback can have on Indigenous communities.

“Prisons should be no better than the worst of communities that exist,” said Rynne, whose ongoing research focuses on the impact prisons have on Indigenous culture. “Something we have to be really careful of is how do we know our research isn’t just making prisons better to hold even more aboriginal people.”

Western Australia and the Northern Territory are making concerted efforts to “come to terms” with culture-specific punishments and rehabilitation requirements of imprisoned Indigenous people, whom Rynne said have been “thrown into a Western prison system”.

“There are instances (of segregation),” he said. “There are instances where it is appropriate, but, I mean a person who is from a remote community – if they have never lived off that remote community and all of a sudden you throw them into a cell that’s only got white blokes in there – the person won’t know how to cope.”

Aboriginal liaison officer Gwen Anderson, however, said inmates often coalesce with family members and adjust easily to life behind bars.

“Some people don’t look at it as a deterrent, they look at it as a family reunion,” said Anderson, who offers general support services to inmates at the Darwin Correctional Centre.

No matter how easily inmates adapt, strife subsists in prisoners’ struggle to obtain dominance. Anderson witnesses the occasional fracas and remembers a dogged scrap between two inmates, pinpointing the inmates’ desire for control as motive.

“They have all of the control on the outside, so they feel useless here,” said the indigenous liaison officer, who hails from Katherine, NT.

Indigenous prisoners require positive reinforcement to achieve peace of mind, which, Anderson believes, is vital in curbing recidivism rates. While monumental challenges exist, she acknowledges a sense of unrivalled accomplishment when those released from prison avoid reoffending.

“It’s extremely rewarding,” said the 43-year-old. “It takes a lot of wear and tear out of you, I can tell you that.”

But more often than not, those released from the confines of prison fall back into a life of crime.

“The vast majority of behaviour is regulated, not by the criminal justice system, and not by criminal law, but indeed the community,” said Mazerolle.

Crime rates are 24 times higher among indigenous populations, but Rynne said individuals dwelling in rural Indigenous areas are highly scrutinised by police and placed under a microscope, often being imprisoned repetitively for misdemeanour offences.

Rynne vividly recalled – and empathised with – a rural indigenous man’s plight, whose name remains anonymous due to research privacy concerns. The man has been arrested and released on 35 separate occasions for non-violent crimes – mostly consisting of driving offences.

“If you and I did that, there is no way we would be in prison 35 times,” he said. “I often try to understand how I would fit (into Indigenous life), and I wouldn’t, I would be mad.”

With the Indigenous population set to double in Australia during next 50 years, the penal system, and communities alike, need to work in unison to clearly establish an effective rehabilitation program, availing ex-prisoners an opportunity to seamlessly reintegrate back into society.

The below video is unaffiliated to the story but relates to the topic.

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