The breadth and depth of work being done by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and organisations to address incarceration and related issues was profiled at a recent conference, reports Dr Megan Williams for the #JustJustice project.
Megan Williams writes:
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ actions to address disproportionately high rates of criminal justice system contact and incarceration were profiled during the inaugural Closing the Prison Gap: Cultural Resilience Conference, recently held in northern NSW.
A majority of presenters were First Peoples, guided by Bundjalung woman Rebecca Couch as MC, and Dr Meg Perkins as conference initiator and coordinator.
Conference attendance was at capacity, with 150 registrants from around Australia meeting at Kingscliff on Cudjingburra country within the Bundjalung Nation. The welcome on both days by Traditional Owners included leader Kyle Slabb reflecting on his mob’s vision for a healthy future, with dancers connecting their stories to the local landscape.
Children and families
The first conference theme on children and families was opened by Professor Muriel Bamblett, Yorta Yorta woman and CEO Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency, who described Alternatives to Child Removal including leadership, healing and diversionary programs.
Kaiyu Moura Bayles, a Wonnarua, Wirri and Wakka Wakka woman spoke about Learning the Old Ways, and Inspiring Positive Change and contributed also through her family presence and poetry.
Michelle Laurie, a Gummbaingirr woman and Rebecca Blore, Anaiwan woman discussed their Brighter Futures, Supporting Families work, and Natasha Mace shared her powerful story and the Hymba Yumba Community Hub.
Professor Ross Homel, from the Griffith Criminology Institute, explained the decade-long Creating Pathways to Prevention program, and sparked discussion on the need for strong partnerships in programs and research to privilege the voices of local people.
Prisons and post release
The second session focussed on prisons and post-release community reintegration. Therese Ellis-Smith, a Bond University PhD candidate, overviewed Offender Programs, and Professor Joe Graffam of Deakin University discussed Enhancing Employment Opportunities post-incarceration.
Mervyn Eades, Nyoongar man and Eddie Mabo Social Justice Award winner, explained successful features of the Ngalla Maya prison-to-work program, including developing trusting relationships with ex-prisoners.
Focussing on children, Bond University researcher Dr Bruce Watt noted that very few in Queensland are assessed for Fitness to Stand Trial, despite high proportions thought to have intellectual disabilities or other issues impeding understanding of charges and trials.
Dr Janet Hammill, Gamilaraay woman from the University of Queensland, provided compelling information connecting Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder with risks for criminal justice system contact.
Dadirri and healing
We began the second day with Ken Zulumovski and Carolyn Minchin from Gamarada Indigenous Healing and Life Training leading singing and mindful, deep listening – Dadirri.
Catherine Jackson Gidgup, from Gamarada, Yarn Australia and Grandmothers Against Removals spoke about her healing journey, and also supporting others.
Lara Bennett, a Wiradjuri woman and Deirdre Currie, Minjungbal/Nunduwal woman, International Women’s Day Award Winners, outlined their well-evaluated Kids Caring for Country and Learning our Way Program.
Gayle Munn, Gunggari woman and Robert Lacey, Waka Waka man spoke about their Lateral Peace Project including healing from intergenerational trauma and strengthening connections to identity and country.
Our connection to country was deepened by beautiful images and stories of the Mount Tabor Station Healing and Rehabilitation Centre planned by Keelen Mailman, Bidjara woman, author of The Power of Bones and Mother of the Year winner, and Keith Hamburger, ex-Director Queensland Corrective Services Commission.
The final session sharpened its focus on underlying factors for incarceration. Beginning with Chris Lee, the innovative University of Southern Queensland’s Education in a Box Program overcomes complex system barriers to connect prisoners to tertiary education preparation and qualifications.
Gerry Georgatos from the Institute for Social Justice and Human Rights in WA received a standing ovation for his analysis of data revealing far greater rates of suicide among Australia’s First Peoples compared to other countries, and for his research supporting prisoners to complete education qualifications and prevent re-incarceration.
Professor Harry Blagg from the University of WA presented on Colonial Dispossession: Postcolonial Perspectives on the Criminal Justice System, tracing how incarceration can be seen as extending colonial oppression, including through lack of action to rectify inequity.
Following this, my own presentation on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ Research Leadership ended with a call for investigations into governments’ own accountability to meet policy commitments.
NAIDOC Lifetime Achievement Award Winner Tauto Sansbury linked all the themes together, explaining his own journey and how barriers to Self-determination and Treaty contribute to incarceration.
The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander-led programs all reported high levels of engagement, access, capacity building and retention of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, as well as integration with other services, cultural-sensitivity and high numbers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff.
In contrast, mainstream government and community agencies instead report struggling to achieve these, despite their funding and targets. These shortcomings seem essentially to occur because of a lack of trust for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, manifested by government control of programming, funding, data management and relationships.
We talked about Treaty and how it would demand a new relationship with First Peoples, with accountabilities in law.
Mainstream Australia could benefit; it is itself suffering high rates of obesity, suicide, loneliness and alcohol-related harm.
A Treaty envisions all that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures have to offer – holistic, integrated care, collective family and community healing, and a responsible orientation toward multiculturalism and environmental protection for future generations.
Cultural resilience was never in question.
But the question remains: Why won’t Australian leaders embrace Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander solutions to the criminal justice crisis, and demand better efforts to address racism?
Perhaps this will be the theme of the 2017 Closing the Prison Gap gathering?
• Dr Megan Williams is a member of the #JustJustice team, a Senior Research Fellow at the Aboriginal Health and Wellbeing Research team at Western Sydney University, and a descendant of the Wiradjuri people of the NSW Riverine.
You can read more than 80 #JustJustice articles published to date here.
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