More than the worst thing we’ve ever done

Sunday Blog 73 – 26th February 2023

This post contains a trigger warning as it talks about perpetrators of serious crimes and sexual assaults, and explores the idea of restorative justice.

I swear it was a coincidence that the episode of Invisibilia I cued up to play on my drive to Casuarina Prison was on the subject of crime and rehabilitation.

I get obsessed with podcasts, and Invisibilia is my latest. As the blurb on the podcast says, “Invisibilia – Latin for invisible things, fuses narrative storytelling with science that will make you see your own life differently.” So it’s a very broad spectrum of issues discussed.

The podcast episode explored whether there is such a thing as a criminal personality – once a criminal, always a criminal. I turned it up, listened more closely as I turned took the right turn onto the freeway.

I’ve always had a thing about prisons. Maybe because of the picture in the lounge room of my childhood home. A woman, holding a baby, looking up. It’s supposed to be Mary holding Jesus but someone told me that it was drawn from a live model of a woman visiting her husband in prison, taking the baby for him to see. Whenever I looked at the picture I imagined the woman. How far did she need to come to see her husband? How was she getting by? Would he ever come out?

And of course Australia was colonised by a Britain keen to find a spot for all the prisoners they had, clogging up the prisons, loading down the prison barges on the Thames. Many of us are related to prisoners, often imprisoned for being poor and rebellious. I am a proud convict descendent. Or maybe it was the regular mentions at church where we went, well, religiously each Sunday. “I was in prison and you came to visit me” and all that.

My childhood was one of love, nurture and privilege. And truly, shelter. We may have known of people having brushes with the law, but never someone close enough to us that we would visit them.

Fast forward to my early adulthood and regular church has been abandoned, never to be frequented again. It’s the 1980s, an older sister who liked to push against the boundaries of our sheltered childhood had been dating someone who ended up in prison. The three of us had shared houses together and he was by then a friend. He was incarcerated in Fremantle prison, which was not much different in the 1980a than it was in the 1850s, in the early days of colonisation in Fremantle. The prison had been built by convicts and housed prisoners right up until 1991. Dickensian was how it could be described.

The first time I went to visit my sister’s boyfriend in Fremantle prison I would have been a green 21-year-old. It’s hard to forget the sound of the gate clanging behind you as you are locked into the prison doors for the the first time. To catch the look some warders give you because of you are a visitor, associated with a prisoner. The weirdness of picking up the phone on one side of the glass to talk to someone on the other side. The sudden stage fright of trying to think of interesting things to say. And not putting your foot in it. I got the hang of it more and more, and visited him as he transitioned through the prisons and out again. By then both he and my sister had moved on to new partners. He found true love as he was cycling out of prison and married her not long after. That was certainly an interesting wedding…

But I digress. Fast forward to 2002. I am on the other side of the equation – not someone visiting a prisoner, but a victim of a serious crime. Someone who made the call to police which set in motion their slow but steady processes.

I never hesitated to call the police after the assault. I mean, you wouldn’t ever think twice if it was a robbery, would you? But this was as a sexual assault. The act of making a call to the police started up the merciless machinery of the justice system, which pulverises both victim and perpetrator. The justice system in particular is not kind to sexual assault victims, and some research indicates less than 1% of reported rapes end in a prison sentence. The odds are not good.

In my own case the odds were much higher because it had been a home invasion. I had no prior connection to the perpetrator. I was “the perfect victim” because of this, plus I still carry the privilege of my nurturing childhood and social connections. No one has any trouble believing me. In fact, I am soon invited to various seats at various tables to have a say about how things could be better.

But a dreadful ache consumed me when the perpetrator was identified, more than 14 months after the event. I knew all weekend he would be arrested on Monday, but he didn’t. That feeling of inherently wrongness in shutting someone out from society reached right down inside me.

Also, how frustrating is the rhetoric that we just need to lock people up and throw away the key.

I became a volunteer prison visitor because I feel that prison is a huge waste of human potential. That people can change. That justice is a rich man’s game which means some of our most vulnerable languish in prison. That justice is riddled with racial bias, where 30% of West Australian prisoners are Aboriginal, while making up just 3% of our state’s population.

Most people are going to get out anyway, and wouldn’t it be better if they were well supported with education, employment, health, dental and mental health, drug and alcohol services before release? I became a volunteer visitor just in case I can help influence any improvements.

People can change. The Invisibilia podcast episode tracked one offender remaking himself bit by bit until eventually he was no longer the person he used to be. In the words of African American lawyer and social justice advocate Bryan Stevenson says, we are more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. And I say this not as a naive and idealistic citizen, but as someone who has had a bad thing happen. The most important thing for me is for something good to come out of that. Pushing that wheel of justice forward!

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