‘If I were the King of the World, tell you what I’d do…’

Just a line from an old Three Dog Night song that’s been running through my head ever since I was asked to write this article (some of you might remember ‘Joy to the World’ from the 70′s).  A therapist would probably have a field day with the association but I think, being given carte blanche in the Attorney-General’s seat (albeit only in my mind), is as much like being ‘King of the World’ as I could imagine. But before I go on, please let me just say at the outset that I’m neither a lawyer nor a politician and as such, have only a lay knowledge of what an Attorney can and cannot do.  In view of this, I feel I must make a kind of ‘pre-emptive acknowledgement’ that some of the things I will do and some of the changes I will make during my ‘reign’ as Attorney, might for all I know, be entirely impossible, impractical – or, heaven forbid, even illegal!  I also acknowledge that I cannot quote from the various Acts I will change, nor would I even know some of the many laws I will doubtless break.  However, I do trust that in the spirit of this series of articles, your disbelief might be suspended for a short while, and the appropriate legislative amendments enacted and the necessary laws changed in your minds to give me the power to do pretty much whatever I like!

And I would like to start with an area that has particular significance to me on a deeply personal level…prisons.

Way back in 2005, when I was less than a year into a four year prison term, I learned that corrections were putting together a little $25 million package for the women’s correction system called ‘The Better Pathways Strategy’.  All very well and good, but did these measures actually result in any decrease in re-offending?  To be fair, perhaps it’s too soon to tell yet, but my initial response is that ‘The Better Pathways Strategy’, if not the ‘way forward’ to decreased recidivism that it promised, was at least aptly named – the process did deliver some very fine footpaths within the prison!

Jokes aside though, Better Pathways did deliver upgrades to the Medical Centre, the Centre for Education, Industries, the Programs Building and the Visit Centre, as well as refurbishing the old Special Needs Unit (this was re-named Maarmak and re-designated as a ’24/7 Mental Health Care facility’), however none of these upgrades have yet proven to be any more beneficial to women in terms of outcome than the old system did.  Basically, it was a lick of paint and a promise.

So then…

My first official act as AG would be to sack corrections, abolish prisons and rename the buildings ‘Reflection Centres’.  Naturally, some maximum security facilities (maybe one for the men and a small one for women somewhere) would need to remain designated as ‘maximum’ to house violent or sex offenders (we can’t let all the really bad ones out) but as this means less than 15% of women currently incarcerated (in my experience, I’d put this figure at less than 5%), I would recommend Reflection models begin immediately in women’s facilities and gradually roll on into the various men’s facilities.  Women in custody have traditionally received the ‘blunt end of the stick’ (or the left-overs) as far as services, programs and accommodation in minimum security beds are concerned, so in this reform at least, women would be the first to reap the benefits.

The new Reflection Centres for women would no longer be staffed by corrections officers.  They would be operated entirely by professionals and civilians.  Current prison officers would be given the opportunity to re-train as educators, vocational trainers, personal development facilitators or welfare workers, with those not availing themselves of the opportunity being re-designated as ‘security guards’ who would no longer work within the facility or be in contact with the women.  These staff would be re-deployed to security details on the perimeter.  All ‘prison-type’ security would begin and end at this perimeter which would be situated out of sight of the Centre.  Security concerns such as drugs or weapons can be easily addressed from this location but the hyper-surveillance and the hyper-vigilance of the previous corrections model has no place within a Reflection Centre.

The new Reflection Centres will deliver arts programs, such as dance, theatre and music.  They will also offer educational programs, such as computers, graphic arts and other vocational courses, as well as secondary, TAFE and tertiary tuition.  There will be programs to support mothers and children (provision will be made at all Reflection Centres for children to remain with their mothers); drug and alcohol programs; specialised women’s health programs complete with visiting doctors and other health and mental health professionals; sports programs and leisure activities.  Non-government organisations would also be invited to involve themselves in Reflection Centre life, providing invaluable links with community and bringing a sense of ‘normalcy’ to the environment.

Lastly, but most importantly of all, there will be specialist counselling and personal development programs to enlighten, empower and enable women, to heal them and make them whole.  After all, isn’t that what re-integration means, to return the ‘part’ to the ‘whole’?  What good is it to the ‘whole’ if we continually return damaged or broken people?

In view of this, there will be no ‘stick’.  Participation in any Reflection Centre activity will be entirely voluntary.  However, there will be a ‘carrot’ – in the form of a revamped remission system whereby early ‘graduation’ can be earned through voluntary participation in educational or therapeutic programs and the necessity for post-graduation ‘supervision’ limited or lessened.

But, in nearing the end of this article, I’m getting a little ahead of myself.  ’Offenders’ would first need to be referred to Reflection Centres by the Courts and for that to happen with any degree of success, the judiciary, the media, in fact the whole of society, would need to ‘do a 180°’ in their perceptions of the current corrections model and embrace, wholeheartedly, my own vision of ‘justice’.

Perhaps they just need a little time for reflection… Joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea, Joy, to you and me…

Vickie Roach is completing a PhD at Swinburne University and works at the Koorie Heritage Trust.  She completed a four-year prison term at the Dame Phyllis Frost Centre in 2008.  In 2007, Ms Roach established a constitutional right to vote in the watershed High Court decision in Roach v Australian Electoral Commission [2007] HCA 43.