Indigenous Law Bulletin
by Pat Maurer
When asked to write an article on Aboriginal Women in custody I wondered what could be written that hasn’t already been said. We all know that Aboriginal people are incarcerated at a much higher rate than non-Aboriginal people, are sentenced for longer periods of time for the same crimes, suffer more disadvantages in health, education, housing, employment and are deprived of many basic human rights.
In a 2001 edition of the Indigenous Law Bulletin Michael Dodson spoke about the fact that 10 years after the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody “things in fact have gotten worse, incarceration rates have gone through the roof in most jurisdictions. Indigenous people’s exposure to the criminal and juvenile justice systems and to prisons is a national disgrace”. In 2004 the same statement could be made – nothing has changed; in fact the numbers of Aboriginal people incarcerated, in particular Aboriginal women, would be even more appalling.
What are we missing here? There seem to be many problems and few solutions. Governments wish to off-load as many of their current responsibilities as possible to local Aboriginal communities, but are unwilling to pay for the costs of doing so. There are few resources for Aboriginal women when released from custody. Housing is a major problem for them and their families: when you can’t be reunited with your loved ones there is only one way to go – back to lifestyle that brought you into custody, which then traps Aboriginal women in the REVOLVING DOOR SYNDROME. So whilst there are no other measures in place for Aboriginal women, they will continue to be imprisoned. When is someone going to listen to the voices of Aboriginal people?
One of my roles as the Director of the Aboriginal Support and Planning Unit with the New South Wales (NSW) Department of Corrective Services (the Department), is to visit communities State-wide speaking to the Elders and passing on information as to how the department is managing Aboriginal offenders. The most interesting comment made by nearly all the Elders I have spoken to is the lack of respect that the young people have, not only for themselves but for the respected Elders in the communities who have been trying to reinforce how important it is for them to learn about their culture.
This reflects a major problem with some of our Aboriginal women in custody today. They are using the word “Aboriginal” as a fighting tool and yet when asked about their Aboriginality they don’t know anything. When seeking help and advice Aboriginal offenders tend to turn to other Aboriginal people, and you can see the hurt and pain in their faces as they feel ashamed to have to admit that they know nothing about their culture. This lack of cultural knowledge and its impact on criminal offending by Aboriginal people led to the development of a program that was implemented into the Department a few years ago by Vivian Scott and myself – the Karrka Kirnti Aboriginal Women’s cultural program.
The Program uniquely provides and offers a focus on Aboriginal identity which can be utilised by the program service delivery when dealing with Aboriginal people and can also be utilised by staff members in the Department. The advantages of obtaining the knowledge and understanding of Aboriginal culture further benefits and fosters reconciliation – through the grasping of the social justice issues which effect Aboriginal peoples’ everyday life, positive relationships can develop based on understanding and respect.
The outcomes of the program are varied: appreciating ones culture, sensitising opinions of ones views towards another, respect, promoting the position of Aboriginal women in all society, identifying and alleviating the myths surrounding Aboriginal people, recognising the impacts and effects of past and present policies and practices, and improving access to information. A further outcome is educating participants in the development of working models with respect to cultural awareness in the workplace and to investigate these models being a part of a Code of Practice within the Department, entitled “The Bridging of Gaps”.
We take approximately 10-15 female offenders, predominantly Aboriginal women, with approximately the same numbers in Custodial and non-Custodial staff for seven days to Yetta Dhinnakkal Brewarrina, NSW. The Department has set up a fully self-contained area for the program to be conducted. Once all the participants have arrived there is no Blue or Green – all are equal, everyone is called by their first names and all have to participate and respect each other. Participants are encouraged to engage in conversation to get to know each other and break down barriers.
The program is very structured, each day starts at 9am. Many issues are covered: Colonial and Post colonial injustices, Assimilation, Stolen Generations, Sexual Abuse, Domestic Violence, not Black enough to be Black and not White enough to be White, Drugs, Health, Education, Children, Families, Kinship, Reconciliation, the Royal Commission Into Aboriginal Deaths In Custody and why it was implemented into the Department, Racism, Insensitive and Offensive language, Dreamtime Myth and Legends, Meditation, Smoking Ceremony, Land Rights, and Native Title.
One full day involves Elders from the community, Uncle Roy and Aunty June Barker, coming to talk about what it was like in the early days and answer questions. Uncle Roy shows the class how to make some Aboriginal artefacts with natural resources as taught to him by his old people. An Elder from Yetta Dhinnakkal, Uncle Les Darcy, takes participants on a drive to the well known Brewarrina fish traps, and to some Sacred Sites on the property, and shows what some of the artefacts were used for. Half a day is spent finding bush tucker food and cooking it that evening. Every night all participants sit around the camp fire and talk about their feelings concerning what they learnt that day.
Karrka Kirnti program has succeeded in reducing re-offending for a number of Aboriginal women who have participated. It has given them the opportunity to reunite themselves with cultural beliefs and encouraged them to be proud of who they are. Staff have also been overwhelmed by the opportunity to learn about Aboriginal culture and many have commented that if they had been taught this either in school or within the Department they would be better able to understand and work with Aboriginal offenders.
The main reason why this program is so successful is because it is conducted outside of a Correctional environment, and most importantly, it is going back to the land. Land for Aboriginal people holds significant spiritual beliefs, because of the myths relating to it. Aboriginal people are the land. This is clearly seen when these Aboriginal women participate in Karrka Kirnti – something happens to them that cannot be explained in words but as an Aboriginal woman, I see the spiritual change in them. Also, mutual respect between staff and offenders develops; where before some of them wouldn’t even talk to each other, now they eat, laugh, work, discuss and cry among each other. Finally, the program is successful because it is taught by Aboriginal women.
The Department is very supportive towards this program but due to some restraints we can only conduct four camps a year. However, Commissioner Mr Ron Woodham has expressed his concerns on many occasions at the increase of Aboriginal people in custody and has offered the camp site to community people to take youths out there under the guidance of adults to run youth programs. These have also been very successful.
So one solution to the problems of increasing numbers of Aboriginal people in custody may be to have camp sites made available to Aboriginal communities throughout NSW where programs such as Karrka Kirnti can be implemented for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people to gain a better understanding and knowledge of Aboriginal culture. This would not only assist in developing reconciliation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people but would most importantly encourage Aboriginal people to have knowledge and pride in their culture. Perhaps then Aboriginal people being over-imprisoned will cease. Most importantly, we need to work to help our very young Aboriginal Mothers and Mothers-to-be and to give the next generation a better future.
Pat Maurer is a Murri woman from the Wakka Wakka Tribe in Queensland. She is the Director of the Aboriginal Support and Planning Unit, NSW Department of Corrective Services.
 Michael Dodson, “Introduction”, (2001) Vol 5(8) Indigenous Law Bulletin 4, p.4
 These colours refer to the uniforms used to differentiate between offenders and correctional staff.