Building bridges not walls

Building bridges not walls

Building Bridges not Walls, the Social Justice Statement from the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference for 2011-2012, focuses on the plight of people in our prisons. Chairman of the Social Justice Council and Bishop of Broome, Christopher Saunders, in his Chairman’s Message, questioned whether there are constructive alternatives to imprisonment, indicating that “the majority of Australian prisoners come from the most disadvantaged sections of the community: Indigenous people, the underprivileged, those suffering from mental illness. Given these facts, we must ask if the justice system is truly delivering justice to our community.”

 

Prior to state elections, an increased focus on crime, promises of increased police protection and longer prison sentences, is guaranteed. It’s what the general public wants to hear. It’s a real vote winner! This observation is supported by a prison chaplain contributing to the Social Justice Statement: “Politicians and sections of the media often find it easier to be ‘tough on crime’ than ‘tough on the causes of crime’.”

 

Cessnock Correctional Centre currently accommodates almost 500 inmates in minimum, maximum or segregated security. With the new maximum security centre and a renovated Mental Health Unit scheduled for completion this year, the Cessnock complex will be at the leading edge of correctional management.

 

Two people involved in providing different services for inmates at the Cessnock Correctional Centre tell their stories:

 

An inside view from a corrective services officer…

 

Paul Jones is employed as a senior correctional officer at Cessnock Correctional Centre. In his 19 years of service he has worked at numerous centres throughout the state including Long Bay, Parramatta, Wollongong, Brewarrina and Tomago, witnessing many changes. With colleagues, he has fought hard against proposed privatisation changes, and work hard to deliver professional correctional service, to reduce re-offending and enhance community safety.

 

Paul’s original intention was never to remain working in the prison environment. After a short period of unemployment during the 90s, he applied to train and become a prison officer and distinctly remembers thinking,”Paul, you’ve really hit rock bottom now.” He admits that his work-life is a bit of a roller coaster and days can vary from feeling positive about making a difference to someone, and five minutes later having that feeling reversed by an inmate who has self-harmed.

 

Changes within the system have increased the potential for rehabilitation, with most prisoners being productive and acquiring real skills while they are ‘inside’. There was a time when unions played a big part in restricting the kinds of business which could be conducted in prisons, particularly if they impacted community businesses. Changes which have resulted in the introduction of light fabrication engineering, furniture manufacturing, demountable refurbishment for the Department of Education, food services, ground maintenance, motor workshops and a number of hygiene programs have improved opportunities for inmates to obtain useful skills. Much of the training is recognised by TAFE and overseen by qualified personnel, with inmates receiving certificates to assist them on release. Cessnock also has community projects and a Mobile Outreach Program in which selected inmates can participate. For many inmates, training opportunities provided by professionals ultimately give them worthwhile skills and in Paul’s opinion, “give them a sense of true worth and build self-esteem”.

 

According to Paul, one of the greatest changes has been in the classification of prisoners when they arrive: “Prisoners are assessed on the offence, length of sentence, security rating (maximum, minimum), but more importantly – why they are here! We set goals which are achievable, particularly if they access the available support programs, and their potential for parole release is based on their own achievements.” There is a greater emphasis on duty of care both to the inmates and the community at large: “Obviously if we can rehabilitate an offender there is more likelihood of a safer community.” Paul likens his team of officers, administrators, counsellors and chaplains to something out of “MASH”. In general, there is a strong camaraderie amongst staff and inmates.

 

The removal of part-time detention centres remains one of the real negatives for Paul. “They were a good idea – they gave people a taste of gaol but kept offenders in touch with family and work commitments. It’s not good to take a productive person out of the workforce as it often has dire effects on the family, both emotionally and financially. That’s not to condone crime but most people involved in weekend detention were petty criminals, not hardened criminals.”

 

The fact that there are few options for inmates with serious mental health issues is another cause for concern. Prison is often their only option and Paul indicated that “many see prison as their haven because they have nowhere else to go. As a result some re-offend to return to their safe haven. Unfortunately we don’t tend to see the positive outcomes of people who are released and lead productive lives so when someone returns it’s hard not to feel like the system has failed.”

 

Lack of resources, particularly staff, often impacts on support programs. If security is inadequate because of staff shortages, courses can’t proceed. Paul referred to a statement made by prisoner advocate Brett Collins who said: “The majority of prisoners want to be comfortable.  They only feel comfortable if the prison officers are comfortable. Prison officers are only comfortable if there are enough prison officers.”

 

While there are exceptions to the rule, Paul said most inmates were keen to be productive – “I have come across only a handful of ‘really evil people’ in nearly 20 years. The changed culture within correctional centres has resulted in less brutality, and for many inmates, that mental toughness has been broken down. But I really don’t have the answers for successful rehabilitation – no two people are the same and it’s very hard to overcome that human element.

 

“Ours is a very hazardous environment to work in – it can be very dysfunctional – there’s a high suicide rate, high incidence of alcoholism. The turnover is high. Having said that, if I can turn one person around, plant one seed and help that person, it’s a good thing!”

  

Saving souls – a Chaplain’s prayer...

 

Recently appointed chaplain at Cessnock Correctional Centre, Deacon Peter Little sees his role as one of engagement without judgement and liaises with all inmates who are willing to engage and wish to better their predicament. He notes that “the chaplain’s role is to be that presence that offers a hand to reconnect, get up and walk, run ahead.”

 

He is hopeful that his listening, reflective presence gives emotional, spiritual and practical support and will assist the inmate to a better direction in life. Through numerous programs which support positive lifestyles, and addressing requests (which may involve attending family events like funerals), there are practical ways to help.  These are always done in collaboration with corrective service officers. Peter also supports the officers by providing spiritual and emotional support. He too attests to the team atmosphere within the prison.

 

Peter confirms that many inmates are broken people - broken before they enter prison, and through no fault of their own, don’t know what a “normal” life is. They feel isolated from society, forgotten, worthless and in a place where hope is a dark place. His goal is to help them “see the sails on a distant yacht from the position of dumping shore breakers”, recognise their anger and rage and help them reflect on those feelings and search for the meaning of life. In Peter’s opinion there are other worthy professionals to assist and counsel inmates with personal management strategies.

 

As part of his role, Peter includes time for prayer and liturgy, as well as other prayer services which involve other chaplains from differing faith backgrounds. Mass is celebrated and in Peter’s words can be a different experience; “for some this is a strange new experience, some a regular familiarity, and for others a quenching of thirst that has lingered for a long time.” Some inmates are involved in theological, biblical and spiritual studies outside the prison and are supported by Peter.

 

The chaplain’s role is also vital when returning an inmate to society. “Inmates are often fearful of an unknown future, re-offending, a different society, and cultural differences. It can be a confusing time… what will I do, where will I work, sleep, eat, clothe myself, care for my family? How do I speak to them? Language and society are so different from 5, 10, 20+ years ago!”

 

Cited on page 7 of Building Bridges not Walls, is a statement by chaplains from the World Congress of the International Commission of Catholic Prison Pastoral Care: “We strongly advocate and work for justice that restores, heals and protects; a justice that makes the offenders accountable for what they have done; a justice that provides restitution to the victims who are most of the time ignored and forgotten by the current justice system; a justice that engages the community in facilitating the healing process, thus leading to the re-integration of the victim and the offender to the community.” Peter agrees with an accompanying statement on the same page which urges every chaplain working in the prison environment to “discover the face of Christ in every prisoner”.

 

His final view of his role in his own words is: “This is a humble role… it is not a role that approaches from above as though the chaplain is a perfect human, located somewhere between humanity and divinity. It is a role that engages and walks alongside.”

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