South Australia is long overdue for a new approach to prisons and re-offending according to one tireless community volunteer. Her comments come as the Government launches a major reform to corrections policy in the state.
Heather Agius was awarded SA Female Elder of the Year at the 2017 SA NAIDOC Awards.Her award was in recognition of many years of work with Aboriginal people in the justice system.
Mrs Agius works at the Nunga Court and at ‘9C’ hearings, both mechanisms designed specifically for the sentencing of Aboriginal people accused of crimes.She also works at the Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement (ALRM) as an AVS worker and is a visiting inspector in prisons.
She has seen first-hand the challenges faced by offenders, particularly young Aboriginal offenders in the South Australian corrections system.
“It’s very hard for people, some who have been there very young.It’s very scary for them.And they don’t talk a lot.They don’t express themselves a lot, they’re frightened and they’re very cautious about speaking to anybody.”
According to Mrs Agius, offending is often influenced by difficult backgrounds and once in the system, offenders receive very little support or advocacy.
“One young lad I did a 9C for, and there was nothing for him.
“He was a very quiet lad, his mother had been on drugs, and he didn’t want to say anything about his mother that was bad,
“I explained to him that he needed to tell the judge that he is not bagging his mother or talking bad about his mother. It’s just what he’s had to deal with in that life that he had been in.
“There were just a lot of things that he hadn’t learnt.He was just existing in that life.There was no door opened for him to change his life, so he was just existing” she said.
Mrs Agius believes that more support and education would enable offenders to change their lifestyle and reduce re-offending across the community.
“If that young man had had a case worker, they would have done a whole lot of things, and paid attention to housing, support, dealing with the drug issue.
“There needs to be life skill programs.There needs to be education.A lot of the guys don’t access education because it’s a shame job, they may not even know their ABC, so it’s about trying to get them to move to another level in their lives but they don’t because of the shame.
“I try to encourage them to do it, because it’s about getting out of the rut that they are in” she said
Currently once people leave prison there is very little support available says Mrs Agius.
“Well there’s none that I know of.We have ASG, which is the Aboriginal Sobriety Group who support people, there is one man is very good with the Aboriginal guys, doing case work with them and trying to get them on track.But he’s only one person and there’s not many others” she said.
This situation makes re-offending common Mrs Agius says.
“They keep going back because they haven’t been exposed to a different life style.You know once they’re in, and they’re with their mates, they come out and they’re with the same people, who are in the same positions that they are, in a very depressed state.And so often drugs are the only way out for them” she said.
Her comments come as the State Government releases a report on the corrections service in South Australia.The report was written after a year-long review by led by Warren Mundine.
The Government says that Reducing Reoffending:10% by 20102 marks a landmark change in correctional services policy in South Australia.
The strategy will cost $40 million and includes initiatives in accommodation and support services for those released from prison, as well as education and training for those in prison.
The Government says it will also support the development of an Aboriginal Framework for Correctional Services and the investigation of a Community Transition and learning centre to rehabilitate Aboriginal offenders from remote communities.
The select committee’s report was informed by input from an Aboriginal Reference Group – members were: Cheryl Axelby, CEO of ALRM, Sharon Gollan, Consultant, Paul Tanner, State Government Senior Aboriginal Justice Officer, Wayne Miller, Indigenous Community Engagement and Governance officer, Ceduna Aboriginal Corporation and Allan Jones, Managing Director of Aboriginal Recruitment Training and Employment (ART).
On the release of the report, Chair Warren Mundine said that the perspective of Aboriginal people was central to the review.
“Early on, we decided to appoint a separate Aboriginal Reference group to advise on factors specific to Aboriginal reoffending.This advice informed the development of all recommendations within the strategy, with seven recommendations specific to Aboriginal people.”
On the release of the new Government strategy, Department of Correctional Services (DCS) Chief Executive David Brown said
“It is no secret that the South Australian prison system has operated at capacity for some time now.
“This growing incarceration rate, which includes high levels of reoffending, demonstrates a clear need to implement new responses that engage the broader sector in supporting offenders to live crime free lives.
“It is time for a new approach to stop the cycle of reoffending” he said.
For more information on the Strategy
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