By Danny Philippa
Could you help a convicted criminal? What if they had committed a violent or sexual crime? Would you volunteer your time for them?
During first semester this year, four students and I did just that via the ANU Legal Literacy Program (undergraduate/postgraduate). This is a volunteer education program for prisoners at the Alexander Maconochie Centre, Canberra’s main prison. It involved us preparing legal lessons for prisoners based on topics they had suggested and wanted to know more about. Topics ranged from parole board decisions and sentencing to using the Australian Capital Territory’s Human Rights Act.
The goal of the program is to increase prisoners’ legal skills so they may better understand and navigate the system in which they are currently immersed. But far from it being a law lecture, we tried to make the experience engaging with games and role–playing. We even had a debate on whether incarceration worked, or if prisons should be abolished. No prizes for guessing what the inmates felt about that particular topic.
Being able to see inside a place few Australians notice beyond clips on the news was an eye-opening experience that I feel very privileged to have had. What I did not anticipate though were the responses I got from telling people that I was volunteering to help convicted prisoners.
The most common comment about volunteering was a variation on ‘that’s great and all, getting to see that side of society, but I just don’t think I could help those sorts of people. I mean just think about what they have done!’
To be fair, it’s a reasonable point. Some people we worked with were convicted of some of the worst crimes imaginable - rape, murder and paedophilia. These are often violent people who have done horrible things, so why would you want to help them? Surely there are more worthy people who deserve your time and energy being spent helping them?
I had these same feelings going into the prison for the first time, mixed with fear and some trepidation, as we really did not know what to expect. Our assigned group was housed in the prison’s protected section. They are there for their own safety because they are old or sick or they have committed offences over which other prisoners in the main population would attack or even murder them. Which meant you could safely assume that a decent proportion of the group were probably sex offenders. The surprising thing was that on an interpersonal level they were very polite, nice and intelligent individuals. Still, there was some confusion for me whether or not these people deserved our assistance.
If you ask people do they think prisons work to prevent crimes or help rehabilitate people most people would say no. It has been widely recognised that they do little to rehabilitate people. Recidivism is a major problem, so much so that judges are less likely to send younger people to jail to give them a chance of not going into a life of crime. There is a common perception from judges to police to members of the public that prisons are ‘crime colleges’. Prisons are seen as expensive and may even make things worse not only for the imprisoned, but society as a whole.
But if you advocate for abolishing prisons, you’re told you are out of your mind. Opponents ask how will the community be protected From people who are a clear and significant danger and need to be removed. What about the victims? Do they not get any compensation for what has happened to them? The perpetrators need to know that their actions have serious consequences. Maybe, even though the evidence does not support it, their imprisonment might deter people from doing these acts.
So the argument is that we need prisons, but they are not perfect. When you then ask people how we can improve the situation, they give more nuanced answers along the lines of ‘prisoners need to be locked up, but need support. They need programmes, mental health treatment and education so that they pay for their crimes, don’t do them again and are able to re-join society.’ This then brings us full circle to the Legal Literacy Program and the reason why you would volunteer at all to help these convicted people.
Prisoners we worked with were funny, and highly engaged, some knew far more about the law than we did. We students certainly learnt a lot from their personal experiences of the justice system, and were able to see the real world results of that system in which lawyers play a crucial role but are often divorced from its consequences. It was also enlightening to hear from prisoners and engage with ideas on how best to prevent crimes and deal with the damage that crime causes the community and individuals.
Remember that these are people who have been tried and found guilty of truly awful crimes. From the small taste of what it is like working with prisoners it is clear that it is complex and challenging work. Though we only volunteered for a half a day a week, it was surprising how emotionally draining it was in that environment, and with some clearly unwell individuals. While I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, it is clear it would take an exceptional person to pursue this as a career. It is difficult work and I now have far more respect than before for the social workers, case officers and other professionals who work in that environment. I am completely convinced of the worth of this program and others like it as a part of the answer to preventing reoffending.
It is very easy to understand the system in the abstract and what we would do if we magically had absolute power and we could make the system more compassionate. But when it becomes real, interpersonal and human, our reactions to these people are the exact opposite. We imagine if it had been our child or loved one or ourselves as the victim of their crimes. But these big picture ideas of reform have to be implemented somehow. The idea of proper rehabilitation and reintegration with the community means dealing with these people and working with them. Educating someone means standing in a room with a white board, talking to people and answering their questions.
This program will not fix all of the problems with the justice system by itself. But programs like this, taken collectively with others, will make a long-term difference. The big picture, which is easy to understand and so clear cut, comprises smaller programs like ours. It is difficult because at the personal level it is hard to confront and help those that we as a society have deemed to be evil and reprehensible. In a perfect world, there would be a far greater focus of our justice system on interventions before people committed crimes. However, the reality we have is that if we want to have a safer and fairer community, we must engage with people whom we would rather avoid.
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