Beyond Bars: two perspectives

Illustration by Jon Tjhia

Last week, the Wheeler Centre presented Beyond Bars: Reflecting on the Human Rights of Victoria's Prisoners, hosted by Anita Barraud, presenter of RN’s Law Report. Our panellists – Victorian ombudsman Deborah Glass and criminal justice experts Bronwyn Naylor and Lisa Harrison – discussed topics ranging from parole conditions to smoking bans to prisoners’ access to rehabilitation programs.

In an extension of the live discussion, Sophie Quick spoke to an ex-prisoner and a victim of crime to get their perspectives on the panellists’ comments and, more broadly, on the human rights of offenders in Victoria.

'Once you become a criminal, how much less of a human are you?'

Anna*, in her thirties, recently served 18 months in the Victorian corrections system. She spent six months in remand before she was sentenced for arson and reckless conduct endangering serious injury.

What’s your perspective on the issue of prisoners’ right to health care and access to health services?

By the time of the incident that got me into prison, my mental health had deteriorated so much that I was completely isolated. I've had problems with drug and alcohol use throughout my life, which exacerbated the mental health problems. I was unhappy working as a sex worker and I’d just gone through the break-up of a relationship that was becoming abusive. Once I got put into prison I thought, ‘OK, this is good. I'll take advantage of the help’. But I had to write letters for months [while in prison] asking if I could please see a psychologist.

It was really ironic. I'm in prison, I want help. I'm in prison because my mental health is really bad. And I didn't get to see a psychologist for months. It’s clear there are not enough therapists for the number of people who need help.

It was really ironic. I'm in prison, I want help. I'm in prison because my mental health is really bad. And I didn't get to see a psychologist for months.

The Beyond Bars panel talked about something that might be surprising to people who are not familiar with the prison system: Sometimes prisoners are eligible for parole, but can’t be released from prison because they haven’t had access to mandatory programs aimed at reducing the likelihood of reoffending. How does this relate to your experience?

When I was sentenced, the judge said, ‘you have to do 12 months inside, that’s mandatory, and we’re counting the six months remand time already served’. But when my parole period was up, I couldn’t leave because there was some confusion around what programs I had to complete. It was a time when a lot of changes were happening in Corrections. In the end, I served 18 months, so I served most of my parole inside. That wasn’t my choice. In the ideal system, they would have had enough staff and enough programs for everyone, but the waiting list for programs was very long. This means there’s a lot of uncertainty and it’s hard for people to make plans for when they get out. That’s especially tough for women who have kids and I think that’s a human rights issue.

There’s also the fact that some prisoners want to just stay inside for the parole period because they’re disadvantaged. What have they got on the outside? Maybe just violence or a whole family addicted to drugs. Maybe they've got no home. Their self-esteem is so low that they think everybody hates them anyway, so why are they even going to try? So they prefer to stay inside: they've got a roof, they've got food, they know the system. It might be a shit system but they know it. They know the dynamics.

The focus of this event was around the idea of human rights. Do you think the human rights framework is a useful way to think about improving our prison system?

Once you become a criminal, how much less of a human are you? How much less of a person, worthy of help, do you become? I think prisons are full of people who are just people – but many of them are people who have been conditioned to survive in a completely abnormal and antisocial way.

As someone with first-hand experience of the prison system, what did you think was missing from the Beyond Bars discussion on prisoners’ rights?

I’d like to know what Corrections is putting into place in becoming fully environmentally sustainable so the cost of running the prisons can be kept lower without the actual living standards of the inmates lowering. I’d like to see a discussion of how money that is being wasted on non-sustainable practices could be used for more social workers and therapists working together to create programs aimed at lowering rates of recidivism.  

I think [some prisons] need to reconsider having people on two-week parking fines together with multiple violent offenders in the same space. And they maybe need to think more about the stress and trauma this can cause otherwise non-violent inmates.

I would have liked to know how much, if anything, the government is doing for people from disadvantaged communities to deter them from resorting to a life of crime in the first place. I think there should be more transparency in the prison system and a more humane health care system.

Did you see any positive improvements with regards to prison life during your sentence?

One thing that was good to see was that there was a prison survey. And the thing they picked up on from the responses was the lack of [organised] activities. People have a lot of time on their hands and nothing to do. And when you’re idle, that’s when people resort to gossip and violence and antisocial behaviour. It’s a tense and sometimes violent environment. So, after that, they started putting more staff in the leisure centre. Hopefully that stays and they don't decide that it's not important anymore because it was actually important for safety in the prison.

Image: A photo of the panellists

The discussion: Anita Barraud, Deborah Glass, Bronwyn Naylor and Lisa Harrison

The panellists discussed research that showed a link between prisoners’ access to education during their sentences and the reduced likelihood of reoffending. What’s your perspective on the right to education for prisoners?

I was able to work in the nursery, which I absolutely loved, and I got a Horticulture Cert II. I also worked in the café and I got a Hospitality Cert II. In terms of higher education, I think there was only one man whose job it was to look after all the girls doing courses. He was really overworked and obviously stressed out. There weren’t very many places [in the higher education program] and there was a waiting list.

What are your own specific suggestions for where taxpayer money might be better directed?

I think Corrections, like most institutions, tends to clam up and become outdated and refuses to try new things. Hence the prison system is stuck in yesteryear. I don’t know if it’s a lack of will or a lack of funding. We definitely don’t seem to have the best of the best researching ways to create successfully functioning rehabilitation. That’s because it’s not something that’s in the foreground and it doesn’t have instant payoffs for anyone. I definitely think the land, the environment and the manpower of the inmates could be put to way better use to reduce costs – but how is a whole discussion in itself!

Overall, if money was going into intelligent social services strategies and disadvantaged people had more community involvement and training to create work for themselves in the first place, they wouldn’t end up in prison as much. As far as prison goes, my firm belief is: most people go in one way and come out worse.

Illustration by Jon Tjhia

What’s your personal perspective on life after prison and the cycle of reoffending?

I was lucky enough to find an amazing social worker from a brochure I found (while still inside) from a program that helps women transition out of sex work. She helped me with everything from finding housing when I got out (albeit a refuge for women) and she supported me from driving me to Corrections appointments to picking me up from my psychologist. Prison Network Ministries has been supporting me since I got out and even provided me with transitional housing which I have till the end of the year. If not for that, I don’t know where I’d be. And I don’t know what I’ll do at the end of the year in terms of housing. The transitional and government housing lists are years long. 

Most girls end up on the streets, as being inside only makes you less able to look after yourself when you get out. You get used to someone telling you what to do, what you eat and when you go to bed. If you had poor skills in looking after yourself when you went in, you come out even worse. And employment? I’m still unemployed and not through lack of applying for jobs. Imagine all the girls in there with not even their high school certificates to get them through. No, they just go back to abusive family or partners or on the street to do what they know best and what is readily available: petty crime and/or sex work and repeat the cycle.


'Victims' rights weren't talked about much'

Sam* was in his early twenties when he was the victim of a one-punch assault some years ago. The assault resulted in a severe brain hemorrhage that required emergency surgery. As the victim of a violent crime, he agreed to offer his perspective on the panel's discussion.

In your case, did the offender go to prison?

He didn't go to prison, he received a nine-month intensive corrections order. He had to attend anger management and do community service.

I didn't see jail as being something that would fix any situation. I couldn't imagine him coming out of jail and being in a better position. Yes, he did assault me and he did a horrible thing, but I think he was unaware of what you can do to someone when you throw a punch.

Hearing some of the evidence about his childhood and life, it didn't seem like he'd had the luxury that I'd had with both of my parents, who had instilled pretty good values and morals in me.

As a victim of crime, do you feel that your rights were respected and that community safety was upheld?

I didn't feel there was a community safety issue with him. He was a first-time offender and that whole period of time [around six months] between assault and conviction and becoming aware of the potential for going to jail – I felt that was a pretty decent punishment. And then for the next nine months, having to go and check in somewhere, once a week – and having a lot of responsibilities that you have to keep up that are a constant reminder of what you've done – that whole package of things to deal with was going to be enough for me.

I very much wanted an apology from him, though, and I didn't get that and I was disappointed by that at the time. That would have been more significant than anything the judge could have done.

Would you feel differently about his sentence if this hadn't been his first offence?

I'd say so, definitely. if he'd had some sort of record – and especially if it was for similar types of offences, for assault I suppose, specifically, it would raise a few questions for me.

Illustration by Jon Tjhia

The focus of the Beyond Bars discussion was prisoners' rights. Did you feel there was enough emphasis on victims' rights?

Victims' rights weren't talked about much. But the human rights of prisoners is something that is more easily forgotten. One thing that could have been discussed more was what led people to the point where they commit crimes. Of course it's very different if it's like pathological thing – if there's a kind of genetic reason – as to why a person commits crimes or hurt people. But I'd say a fair portion of people in prisons had a difficult start in life or just lost their way.

Victims of crime advocates sometimes say that judges are out of touch with community standards, especially when it comes to lighter sentences. What's your perspective on that?

The community standard seems to be that people do want to see jail time – especially for anything violence-based. That seems to be the case in the way that many people respond to my story. Some people were pretty disappointed with the outcome. In saying that, I like to think that for a judge to get into the position they've got into, it's taken many years of study and work and knowledge. They have to look at these situations really objectively and take into account both sides of the story. It's very easy to get caught up in one side of the story and ignore any other information coming in from the other side.

The community standard seems to be that people do want to see jail time – especially for anything violence-based.

In Victoria they now have a minimum ten year sentence if you're charged with manslaughter for a one-punch assault. From my perspective, that's a bit scary. It's great in the sense that it shows that we as a community are taking a stand against this kind of violence and we've pushed the government to respond, but there are going to be situations where people are put away for ten years and I don't that's always going to be beneficial.

Two people with very different backgrounds, very different histories could be doing the same sentence for a similar act. For one person that might fit them and fit the crime – and maybe that's the best place for that person to be for ten years. But maybe not so much for the other person. I find that a bit worrying.

The panellists spoke about investing in the preventative side of crime as opposed to prison itself. What's your perspective on that?

I'm a big believer in education for preventative measures. To me that’s really important to focus on. [With regard to the issue of one-punch violence] it's important to open people's eyes to some real-world outcomes so people know what can happen when you start a fight. It's not like the movies where people get up every time. Sometimes they don't get up very quickly or at all.

What did you think of the conversation about prisoners' access to education?

It was interesting to hear how much of an impact education can have, the statistics around education rates and reoffending. But I didn't realise how difficult it could be for prisoners to be able to do courses. That story about the guy doing the double degree smuggling the equipment in and getting caught – it was heartbreaking. There should maybe be exceptions for certain scenarios to help that person achieve what they want to achieve. You want people to finish their time in prison and go out as better people. Otherwise [prison] is not doing its job. It's holding people for a period of time until they go and do something that allows them to be held again. That just seems like a drain on taxpayers’ money.


*Not their real names

Beyond Bars: Reflecting on the Rights of Victoria's Prisoners

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