Fifty shades of Bergen

I feel like I have been through the mill since the optimism of my last post. I am tired and Bergen is very wet and grey with low cloud sitting on the mountains, low cloud sitting on my brain. I had a bit of a research-crisis just before I started at the prison, a bit of a ‘whats the point?’ moment prompted by a critic (or maybe a voice in my head), who basically said:

“The UK has a million more problems than Norway – is a million times more complex – Norway has the luxury of living at snails pace, where things can be seen more clearly. Their range and volume of offences is smaller. The UK invented the modern prison – they will never go against their own blueprint – its ingrained and will never change. What ever you learn – you wont change anything back home”

I agree with much of that, obviously the social situation in Norway is totally different and the numbers are totally different – but surely that does not mean there is nothing to learn? Exchanging and sharing good practice is always useful? Or is it ? What can I really do with Stretch to make any difference?  Do any policy makers really listen to me? After soul-searching, coffee, getting lost and wet I had a word myself and decided that on the whole I am an optimistic person. I am a campaigner – a believer. I want to believe that change is possible, and that maybe I can affect it somehow, I have faith and hope. By the way, Norwegians are 2nd in the worlds top coffee drinking nations? How bizarre is that? Italy doesn’t even make the list. Here’s a picture of some beautiful fjords, they helped me find some perspective anyway.DSC_0102.jpg

I know I can’t change the world, but I can scratch away at a few problems in my own little niche, at least I am doing something. I probably should not have arranged to to deliver a storytelling workshop with the prison, as I am not here to help the prisoners of Bergen – I am here to talk to staff and observe systems and bring the knowledge back. I wanted to do one workshop while away however, it’s how I really get under the skin of the prison. Staff and prisoners open up to me, we do a lot of talking.


Bergen prison is a bigger prison that the last Norwegian prison I visited 4 years ago, it is considered ‘big’ at full capacity holding a ‘whopping’ 650. I was met by a very jolly newly qualified craft-teacher-guard called Ellen, she was to look after me for my stay. I quizzed her about the training, 2 years paid apprenticeship to get on the programme – people get turned down all the time, they ask you bring another skill, some are carpenters, engineers etc. I am getting a bit obsessed with staff training issue, really think it could make a huge difference in the feel of the prison. The approach to the prison was as gloomy as any British prison, the prison wall is huge and grey – this isn’t the famous Halden Prison with its sea views and decking. If it looks like Wormword Scrubs what could I possible learn here? ( the doubter piped up). Inside how ever the atmosphere is open and relaxed. Like the Australian prisons I really favoured, it is set out as campus with 5 blocks that the prisoners work their way around, from ‘remand’ through to the ‘half way house’ out side the walls. The middle blocks were set out with maybe 8 singe cells around a kitchen and living area.



I did not see many prisoners. It was not encouraged to disturb them, they were asleep in their rooms. There were workshops, lots and lots of Norwegian wood, metal work, jewellery, soap and candles. The grounds were far from perfect however, lots of building going on, the library was closed and had been for a while, and the use of technology was scant. This wasn’t the prison nirvana I was expecting by any means! But – what pulls Bergen Fengsal away from the pack is the community spirit, there is definitely something happening with the mood and the relationships in there which is unusual. I have started a digital storytelling project, with women in the end, which I will expand on in a more dedicated storytelling blog next. I have interviewed a few male prisoners and talked to and observed the staff. One career criminal, who had been in and out of prison most of his life and is now serving a 12 year sentence, tried to explain it to me, he said;

“I have been in Halden and it was a strange place, even though it has very good equipment and computers in rooms – the Director only appears when the newspapers are there and there are no guard around to answer your questions or talk to. The security systems mean you have apparent freedom and swipe cards, but there are more fights than in Bergen, prisoners go a bit crazy”

So it would seem that a certain amount of authority present is better. In Bergen the guards are not over friendly with the prisoners, but each one mentors about three prisoners, and prisoners do not walk around on their own – they are pretty much always with a guard – in a lot of prisons there is often a ‘free flow’ time when they can make their own way between places, opening up opportunity for bullying and abuse – the prisoners do not seem to mind. They genuinely appear to like the officers and in fact like each other, perhaps this is the empathetic prison? Lots to learn after all



On my way to the criminal justice mecca: Norway

I am sitting in a sunny Copenhagen suburb preparing for my onward trip to Norway this evening. Over the next ten days I have a busy schedule visiting different prisons across Norway and looking at their use of technology and the arts. ‘Stretch Digital’ has been unfolding in the UK over the last 6 months and we are finally getting up to full capacity and thinking about embedding our learning. We had a great write up with the Prisoners Education Trust this month. There have been a few issues with the projects in English prisons and in the community – every prison seems to have such different rules and security issues. What is considered okay in HMP Peterborough is not okay in HMP Bronzefield, which is confusing for my staff. I have learnt a lot about trying offer the right kind of support to the team, who bring their own creativity and vulnerabilities to a sensitive process. I have realised that I took a lot of my own knowledge for granted, things I was doing for years in prisons and my methods that don’t always come naturally to other people – we are all learning.

The Norwegian prison service have been very helpful, I have a packed itinerary. My first few days are in Bergen prison, which is the only prison with male and female inmates on the same site – I like that – I work in HMP Peterborough which is the same. I also worked at the AMC in Canberra which was the only one in Australia. Even though they do not mix at all I am convinced mixed prisons have different feel to them. A few nights ago the Director of Peterborough attended an art opening of Stretch Artist in Residence Kay Goodridge and we were chatting, he told me that HMP Peterborough was the ‘showpiece’ prison and used in the wider Sodexo estate as a case study of how to do things – I am so pleased that Stretch have such a presence there ( He also said that art had been re-introduced to the curriculum for well- being, I almost fell over, the women are even getting their own dedicated art teacher that they have not had before).


In my planning for the trip away I was told that I could not bring my usual equipment into the prison in Bergen for the workshops. I was surprised as 4 years ago I travelled to Norway and delivered a few workshops with a local museum and prison up in Molde, I thought they knew what I was all about. Once again I realised that even in Norway we are at the mercy of individual prison directors. In the UK and Australia and in Norway now I find each prison so different, it really is an exploration. With further explanation they said I could bring the equipment – so I have packed up my digital story kit bag. One prison I am visiting has internet access, one prison I have to bring everything in on a memory stick – other prisons memory sticks are banned. What is the reasoning behind these security decisions I wonder? Upon my return I will be looking to gather all my thoughts and information about the use of this equipment for well-being and perhaps make some recommendations. I honestly think the ‘danger’ of connectivity is ill-perceived, to keep up with the times and not leave prisons and prisoners in the dark ages prisons need to look at using all available tools and technology.

I sometimes give a little talk or rant about prison reform and I hail Norway as the ‘mecca of criminal justice’ – where reoffending rates are at 9% to our 60%, where rehabilitation runs though their systems’ core. In Norway working in a prison is a high status job, the guards are trained to degree level as mentors, teachers and therapists – Sodexo take 8 weeks to train their guards. When I worked in Norway 4 years ago it was fascinating. How amazing that the prisoners even knew enough English to work with me! What was soon apparent was how similar prisoners are everywhere, from Australia to Scotland to Norway, often the same problems that lead to prison; poverty, abuse, drugs and plain old curiosity. I hope Norway lives up to its reputation – inspires and energises me – bring it on.





Final conference thoughts on prison education

My presentation was scheduled for 10 am on the Tuesday morning. All I had to do was survive the ‘conference dinner’ in tact. No mean feat, those Aussies sure can drink. I was feeling bit flat before the dinner I had been meeting and greeting so many strangers and ‘selling my self’,  gets a bit tiring. The conference dinner started with a talk by Kylie Farmer, a proud indigenous Australian actress who has done a lot of work in her original language. She was amazing, beautiful, charming and had a lot of thought provoking stories from her culture and her people. Kylie talked a lot about language, she had presented a children’s TV programme in her original language – I since found out she’s done a TED talk on it. She stresses the importance of language to feel connected to your community and the land. The connection with the ‘elders’ of the community that raised her and the passing on of the language leads to a deeper and more authentic connection.  It made me quite sad listening to her that I could never interact with my own mother and her family in their mother tongue of Italian. Perhaps a bit of a feeling of ‘otherness’ or ‘outsider’ from my childhood comes from this.  It probably has deeper repercussions than my parents or I realise, for my connection to that community, one to save for my therapist – but its not really rocket science is it? (*books Italian lessons, again…)  I did end up on the dance floor, like a bad wedding, in the corner of the conference dinner room, seems its the Juvenile workers – the ‘Juve’s’ who can party the hardest.



There had been a few sessions on digital technology in prisons – what appears to be apparent, the same as in the UK I think, that there is no consensus or joined up thinking. In fact one presenter was reporting back on a European conference and said the same. This is a global lack of consensus then – there are pockets of innovation and some prisons trying things but it is dotted around and varied with mixed successes. It was agreed it would be good to have a joined up ‘evidence library’ of what is happening where and what works. We all hear about the connectivity in Norway, but even there it is not every prison, I saw some great projects in Australia that would not go in the UK, but then again I am taking iPads into Sodexo prisons but other prisons laugh me out of town at the suggestion.

New Zealand were piloting some interesting work. They felt is was a duty of care to prepare people for the online world they go out to, the feel ‘obligated’ to train people in that technology, which I strongly agree with – so they offer a few courses online, real online courses like driving theory and things that people in prison might really want to learn.

I had a good turn out for my session, about 30-40 people, it was a success. Many people came up and thanked me and said how moved they had been. Of course I played my trump card, where was the prisoner voice? why am I the only ex-prisoner here?  People earnestly held my hands and kissed my cheeks in thanks and said they had been moved to tears. Result. I spoke about my new employee Fabian Spencer, an ex – prisoner, actor and now going into prisons as a Stretch story teller.

I spoke about the importance of celebrating the good stories, or providing peer support. The art teachers and the creatives all ‘got it’ of course – also a lot of interest from some weighty criminologists. I met a fascinating English couple now living in Australia – both Doctors of Criminology in their 60’s – he had spent time in prison many moons ago. I had really wanted to show some of the work from the AMC centre but they had not been cleared by security yet, I am still waiting. The team at Victoria who had been so supportive were thrilled at the response – we talked about ways they could incorporate the methods into their work. If I pushed it I think they might invite me out to do some training with their education staff. Fancy that.

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Tuesday afternoon saw people presenting their academic research, sounded deathly dull and I was suffering from mental over load already – but actually turned out to be really interesting. Anne Pike is a from the UK and she works for the Open University and was looking at how prisoners and  ex-prisoners cope with being students. A few universities have thought about packages for prisons, as so much of being a student is now delivered online. She also touched on ‘asking the prisoners themselves’ what they want. Fiona McGregor made an inspirational presentation on looking at prisoners relationship to education in terms of desistance theory. I have a couple of possible PhD ideas that have been swimming around the back of my mind for while, one around storytelling and desistance theory and one around using your imagination to fight disconnection. As I listened to their presentations,  I thought ‘I really could do this’ – I might make fresh enquiries upon my return to the UK.

The conference wrapped up without too much of a fanfare, I was mentally exhausted and sloped off quietly, I could chase every one up in emails. On the whole it was what I had expected, pockets of brilliance but a general slip in to US style practice. Very difficult to have a unified thought with such differing state laws and vast geographical and cultural differences.  As in the UK, very much affected by the politics and public opinions of the day.


Thoughts at the conference opening

My nose was already a little bit out of joint before the conference as I had asked to deliver a workshop and they had said no, I was immediately sniffy about the programme and the key note speakers. They were looking a lot to North America and had a couple of US speakers. The programme was top heavy, looking down – a lot of big research papers, lots of figures and theories – a lot of academics telling everyone what the best thing to do with the ‘crims’ was – that was how it seemed anyhow on first reading.

My friends at Victoria Corrections, Deborah and her colleagues, were really keen that I present my work and shoehorn my way in to an impromptu workshop – so buoyed with a few wines at the opening drinks, I hassled the  organisers about what a waste is was that they had practice from the other side of the world here and no one was listening. It worked and they found a slot for me on the Tuesday morning. Plenty of time to drum up support. I made little poster saying the two things that seemed to be missing were the PRISONER VOICE and accessing education through THE ARTS. I was pleased to think that at a conference in the UK such as this, you would definitely have representatives from the prison community showing you examples and telling you things from the grass roots up. Tasmania is a small state, capital city only 80,000 people – so as with Canberra they can try things a bit different and implement change quickly. Their government  minister for justice said a lot of good things about basic needs for prisoners and actually mentioned self worth as being one of those needs. They had a few nice craft projects whereby prisoners were making things for the local hospital and homeless shelters – I thought that could be a good industry cycle, to make blanket or clothes for homeless, etc.

As the speakers and workshops began a lot of it was, as I expected, academic rigour and cost analysis of reoffending of course – but I was pleased to see that some of the grassroots and ‘arts’ and holistic work was being presented in the workshops, dressed up as ‘indigenous work’ – a lot of the work that goes into engaging the Indigenous Australians is the work that basically applies to anyone who is harder to engage and we could talk about the whole swathe of ‘underclass’ – recidivists, lower socio economic groups – what ever your name for them – the hardest to reach, who often have fallen out of education and into continual street crime. The workshops that were doing inventive things with the hardest to reach (Indigenous Australians) were the most interesting to me.

Ian Trust from an Aboriginal organisation  presented a fantastic film and metaphor which could be applied to any sector of society that is lost in the welfare net. All these issues could be applied to the hardest to reach of the criminal justice world, our own poverty stricken so called ‘under class’ – Afro-Americans in the US. Really interesting what he said about the low expectations of the community too. I was very moved.


Susan Lockwood is a weighty American scholar who presented findings from a huge study called the RAND report about the effectiveness of correctional education. It was not something I had come across, but it was apparently what many states based their new regimes on. No massive surprises, with big quantitive studies that proved in a language the social economists understand; for every $1 spent on Education $5 saved on recidivism and 43% of prisoners had lower odds of re-offedning if they accessed education. Good meaty facts.

Employment was a big focus of this conference – in fact the name ‘The pen, the hammer or the mouse,’ I had misread, I thought the hammer was a judicial hammer (!? as in sentencing and punitive)  not the industry hammer….Anyway, so there was a lot of discussion about prison industry. They had a key note speaker at the end of the day Karen Brown who runs a prison industry group in the US who was boasting of her profit of $95 million from prison industry. I was pretty appalled at this looking up to the American system and told anyone who would listen, we should not be looking to the US for much wisdom at all. Prison industry in the US promotes longer sentences and incentives to keep up the prison work force, it is tantamount to modern day slavery. Cooperates lobby for longer sentences, small businesses cannot compete with the cheap labour force. Some of the Australian prison staff however really just seemed to have dollar signs in their eyes. At what cost? I did not even stay for her presentation, as I needed time to prepare my own for the next day.

I did find some of ‘my people’ – the art teachers of course, the people running the pilot radio project, the people running the basic skills through creative industry. I watched a great presentation from a driven and bubbly team out of Western Australia.


Here they had used puppets to illustrate little public service films about issues that effected the community – she brought a lot of puppets to the workshop and we all got have a play. Much more my kind of thing. From the title of the workshop how ever, it was all about issue based learning and digital skills – we all have to jump through the jargon hoops to get the slots we need. In the same way perhaps I emphasise the digital education in digital story telling to big up the employability. I was inspired by the use of the digital skills to make ‘public service’ films and campaigns. In the prison in Victoria the women had created a digital campaign about domestic violence. It made me think there could be something in that – getting people to create stories and campaign films about issues they live with; abuse, addiction, violence, all sorts of things. Think there could be a good application for Stretch in there somewhere….*adjusts thinking cap*



New Museology at MONA and an idea

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As a graduate of a Masters in Museum and Gallery Education I am always interested in galleries and museum spaces that try something new. I grew up in the house of a lecturer in design who used to take me to gallery openings and exhibitions, my first degree in Classics saw me recovering from my student hangovers in the cool rooms of the British Museum and losing my self in the John Soane. It is very much ‘my world’ and the much of Stretch’s activity in the past has involved museums and galleries, trying to normalise the museum world, trying to take people not at home in that space to the gallery space, trying to examine the value of collections and stories.

I am fascinated by the story of MONA, the Museum of Old and New Art. Built by a philanthropist and benefactor who made all his money from gambling, it is in fact a brilliant personal collection. David Walsh is a playful intellectual and what he has created certainly turns on its head traditional ideas of museology. From Enlightenment Thinking we still have a the notion that galleries and museums are a place to ‘better yourselves’ and learn ernest things (even about art) – and much as they try, even places like Tate Modern still have this feeling, filing past the ‘must see’ exhibition becomes a chore – fatigue sets in easily – buy the postcard and the fridge magnet and get out quickly.


It helps that MONA is set out in a remote promontory in Tasmania, this obviously effects my visitor experience, and that the sun is shining. From beginning to end of the trip there is feeling of specialness, it is fun, I am being spoilt. The ferry terminal and the boats are owned by MONA and are painted and playful with music, a smart food and drink bar  and ‘art’ and sculpture around the decks. The entrance to the gallery is dramatic, a stone stair case up the hill with striking sculptures at the top. The gallery itself is like a set from a James Bond film, the classy bad guy would live here – in his remote underground bunker. The art is set underground in a three tiered basement cut into the rock. Huge walls of exposed rock create passageways and smart champagne bars. It’s sexy and exciting. David Walsh has apparently collected art around the subjects of sex and death, but this pretty much covers everything. There is no particular order, older Egyptian Tombs and Roman death masks sit along side a Damien Hirst. Some of the art is challenging to say the least, 70 plaster cast vaginas line up along a wall, a suicide bomber in dark chocolate and even a machine that processes food, mimicking exactly our metabolism and producing excrement that smells, well like our excrement. It is not for every one, I heard a lot of commentary from visitors about ‘that not being art’ – but for me I found a lot of the work arresting and beautiful, films, waterfalls, whole rooms given up to a whim. I especially liked the 4 part exploration of a pacific island project by Matthew Briand; boats, films, huts and reconstructions fill a whole gallery – an immersive trip to another world. The whole gallery has a ‘play ground for grown ups’ feel about it – which appeals to me.

I am not usually one to walk around with head phones on listening to the prescribed instructive voice, I prefer instead to have my own dialogue in my head – and perhaps snippets of other peoples conversation. The media tour on offer is the most user friendly device I have encountered, in that you can use it as little or as much as you like. The exhibits have NO WORDS or titles next to them, so you take the ipod touch and press a button and all the works near you come  up on the screen. If you want further information you click on it. There is a brief description. If you want the full story you press the ‘art wank’ button and get the full artists statement. I know, I know, a bit like the ‘arty bollocks generator’  it’s puerile and childish, but it made me laugh. It’s a playful place. There is an art cinema underground onsite that was showing Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet from the National Theatre that day.

The beauty of the iPod tour is that your tour is saved by the machine so everything you looked at, rather than reading about it there and then, you can have your tour emailed to you after the visit and all the art works info there a long with a 3D map of your visit. Genius if you ask me. This was a great use of the technology.

Outside of the gallery there is a tennis court, a trampoline with a view over the cliffs of Tasmania and various impressive sculptures and buildings. Pathways lead to view points with outdoor sculptures to explore. There are a few restaurants, one very smart, one more informal, a vineyard which produces his own wine and few boutique cottages to rent. There is a beautifully manicured lawn and a stage and MONA host regular music events, a festival in January where The Flaming Lips, Kate Tempest and the like are playing. David Walsh has seen the connection with art and music.  This afternoon a jazz bad from Sydney are playing and I enjoy a reasonably priced sparkling rose while watching a few tame ducks and chickens strut around. I am in heaven – hedonists playground. I really admire the bringing together of the Dionysian ethos of sensuality, spontaneity,  wine and food with the art.

MONA is making museum history in that a visitors tour last for an average of 6 times longer than other galleries. The average calculated gaze in big galleries, MOMA and Tate included, is around 32 seconds per work – in an 100 museum wide American study people last 20 minutes in a gallery. This has a festival feel, people come for the day, two days even.

So, how do I feed this gallery-crush into my work and my thoughts on art and marginalised groups?  I was having good think as I leafed through the book I bought in the shop on the sunny lawn. My interest in David Walsh grew, always a collector, a little bit ‘aspie’ the nerdy guy – has a lot of great things to say about art.

“I definitely feel that art plays a crucial role in society. Art is a critic and a crusader. It is a social conscience and a social barometer…Art is an extremely efficient communicator of ideas because it utilises all of the tools which the non-conscious mind can engage the outside world – mood and emotion, feeling and thought” 

This is something I am feeling more and more, that art is the place for difficult discussions and topics to be explored. Art as a communicator of ideas. The complexities of incarceration, isolation and outsider ideas can be expressed so efficiently through the arts, in my opinion.

Some of the reasoning behind the design of the space detailed in the book explains that it is designed to ‘transport people’ – literally, it adapts elements from ritual spaces and practices because Walsh wanted his art to inspire and transform. He wanted to create a space where people were receptive to challenge and change. Now we’re talking! Not just a transfer of information, but exuberant art in a temple-like precinct and approach, ‘capturing and recreating radical carnival traditions’. Cultural experience as a transformative experience is very much in line with Stretch and my own ethos – and making things FUN makes the change, the learning, the journey much easier.


Musing on all this I came up with an idea. Continuing my theme of ‘Tips for Michael Gove’ I thought ‘Wouldn’t it be a great idea to turn Pentonville into a massive art museum?’ A global attraction, a permanent home for outside art. Giving back to a community – a place where transformation and change can take place. A place to change the status of outside art and do something for the people of the UK – all the people of the UK – rather than selling it off as real estate. The lofty wings would make an exciting and dramatic back drop to exciting and dramatic art from marginalised communities. Art that can be taken seriously in a city centre multi-million pound facility. Art that challenges and arrests and asks questions and is difficult and fun all at the same time. It would be perfect. Do you think he will go for it?


A proper welcome from Victoria Corrections, finally!

What a great day yesterday was, I was exhausted at the end an collapsed into a deep satisfied sleep. I had not managed to arrange any prison visits in Melbourne or Victoria in the run up to my trip and was feeling a bit ignored and frustrated. I met up with some interesting people, but was not getting to the heart of the matter. Each state has its own strict rules about access to the correctional facilities. ACT had been relatively easy as a small and forward thinking state, but the mighty Victoria was another matter. My emails had bounced around from desk to desk to department – finally someone said yes! My request had landed on a senior project manager from the education department at the government department of justice. She arranged a full day visiting two really interesting prisons and talking to staff. I arrived at the Justice Department at 8.45 am as instructed and felt immediately under dressed and casual, it was shiny glass government tower block full of suits and officials. They were very welcoming however and we went down to the 5th level of the carpark (really) to pick up a government car for our trip. Driving us was an prison education manager, a bright spark called David who had been seconded to the government department and wore a sharp suit and shades – felt a bit like Men in Black. They could not have been more interested in my work and we talked non stop about prison education, my time in Canberra, UK experiences and my work.

The first place we visited was a women’s prison called the Dame Phyllis Frost Centre (DPFC), built about 12 years ago housing about 420 women of mixed security. We were shown around by the Rehabilitation Manager who was a driven personality and bubbled over with enthusiasm for what works in the prison. The more prisons I visit and the more I mix with criminal justice departments and prison staff I realise how personality driven it really is. Perhaps this is the case in all professions? A good prison regime is down to a great Director or Governor – committed and intelligent staff who pioneer stuff with the right attitude make all the difference. PDFC was busy place, the women have to do 30 hours a week of  education or work. Industries are laundry, nurseries and horticulture, cooking and kitchens and packing and mending Quantas head phones. The education was almost entirely delivered digitally – four or five computer rooms for different subjects – very impressive. The women worked their way through the facility on good behaviour which was rewarded by work and living privileges – I really believed Scott when he told us his ‘primary job is to prepare the women to go home’ – low level and open, it what is known as a ‘campus prison’ – some cell blocks, some cottages, education block, health block, work units, gardens – Micheal Gove take note.

Australia is a new place, yes there are ‘old’ prisons but nothing like our victorian hell holes – I know I am being spoilt and shown the best ones, the ones they want to show off – and I am impressed. Deborah, the government official, is over seeing a massive change in the education provision for Victorian facilities. Like in the UK it is contracted out and she has just awarded the contract to a new provider who have never worked in prisons before. She really gets digital story telling and is quizzing me about its uses and my iPad project – I feel like she’s about to offer me job!

Our next port of call is a male facility called Marngoneet, the name is taken from the local Wathaurong community and means ‘to make new’ – now there’s an idea, new prisons, new inspirational names (Michael Gove take note 2). This is a therapeutic community prison, people get referred here as part of their sentence – the different ‘neighbourhoods’ treat different mental health issues; addiction, violence, parenting and work skills, sex crimes and psychological problems. each neighbour hood a discreet community – a ‘spine though the middle of the campus divides the protected prisoners from the general pollution and house shares facilities like education and health. Its a brilliant design once again, it appears to work.



Of course all the places have their problems, volume of prisoners being one – all the prisons I have seen are throwing up new blocks and have doubled capacity which is going to change the feel. Never mind ‘superprisons,’ I would advice that no more than 500 people should be on one site, but thats probably impossible and expensive with prison numbers as they are.


Victoria is a ‘no smoking state’- its great for me as I hate the fact that I smoke occasionally I would rather the temptation was removed entirely – its amazing, they brought in smoke free prisons in July 2015. They preceded the ban with 12 months of ‘stop smoking programmes’ and each prisoner is entitled to 12 weeks of patches on arrival. Of course this has just created a new currency in the prisons and tobacco is now contraband at a high premium. There were riots in one of the remand prisons apparently sparked by the rule, fires, it is being rebuilt – I can imagine that happening in the UK, but now everyone is just about okay with it. Prisoners, as inventive as ever, have found a way to turn the nicotine patches into tobacco by soaking tea leaves in the patches and then drying it out “Tea-bacco” is now a lucrative business. One teacher at Marngoneet was telling me about a break in at the prison to a store where all sorts of contraband was kept, stanley knives, treats, and all that was taken were the nicotine patches.

The prison was making great use of a computer network supplied by Prison PC, more about them later, it is a prison that is small enough to try things and be responsive. they were doing some amazing things with computer aided design. I have plans for a project I want to take to the Ministry of Justice, about prisoners designing their own prisons – I liked it a lot.


Another subject I have been avoiding…

I have been attempting to order my thoughts about the interactions with Indigenous Australians since I have been here. It is such a vast and complex subject I am struggling to make sense of it and then write about it without sounding stupid. I came here without realising – no without even thinking about – the constant presence of the Indigenous Australians and the very visible discussions, apologies, notices and admissions to the first residents on this massive island. I have worked with them in the prisons, the teachers and indigenous liaison officers, I have been to amazing art gallery exhibitions and museum exhibits about their story. I have been impressed and entranced by their art and culture. I have been troubled by the incongruous nature of the settlers life style, saddened by the statistics and the horrors of the past, while also obviously enjoying the urban delights of Melbourne.

In the prison in Canberra indigenous Australians made up about 40% of the population which is very low – this goes up to as high as 90% in some places in Northern and Western Australia.  With the national emphasis on tolerance and apology – there has to be a lot of provision for the Indigenous Australians – to respect their culture and traditions (the term Aborigine went out of fashion in the late 80’s although they still identify themselves as Aborigine).

Each area has their own native tribe, and there are literally hundreds of tribes. There are 120 living languages across Australia, each tribe with distinct customs, artworks, culture and practices. This is hard for Australian citizens to navigate through and even harder for my little mind to comprehend – I was very moved in the prison by the Indigenous Art room. This a place they can come and chat and hang out away from the general population – this is normal provision. They had a wonderful table that got repainted in section as new people came and went, a continuously evolving rainbow serpent. They made didgeridoos and message sticks. Apparently in bigger prisons they have spaces for ceremonies and intrenched cultural provision.  They had recently had an interesting project for ‘NAIDOC’ week, there are festivals and projects and inclusive activities. One of the lads I did story telling is a 32 year old ‘Aborigine male’ – typically, in and out of prison all his life from ‘juve’  centres to adult prison, he drank and took drugs and got into petty street crime again and again. You’ll be able to hear his story soon. He is an artist and I bought one of his paintings, I support prisoner art at home and thought it would be a great souvenir – turns out it is quite common for them to sell their artworks. It is a female crocodile protecting her three eggs from hunters – quite apt as I have three children.

The traditional Indigenous Australians interaction with the land is so different to our own. They find it hard to deal with the western ‘luxuries’ of alcohol and drugs. They traditionally find it hard to comply with our timetables and routines – and why should they – they were here first! And of course there is anger and resentment, why should they be in a white mans prison for breaking white mans rules?


Talking to a good friend who lectures in art a Melbourne University the issues became even more complicated. Now seemingly ‘white’ people identify as Aboriginal even if  they are one sixteenth or less, but aligning themselves with that culture. This is is of course open to all sorts of pitfalls and problems. Indigenous Australians can be given special dispensation for ‘walkabout’ or ‘grieving ceremonies’ which might mean they do not hand in their assignments or attend class. The teacher is not allowed to ask or question identification. In the prison I interviewed one of the ‘Indigenous Australian’ prisoners and he did not look or seem how I expected. In some ways it may seem like a fabulous culture to identify with, so earthy and mystical – one of the oldest cultures in the world. A history of painting and walking and storytelling and song. A culture where time has little meaning, where the moon, fire, water and the earth are the rulers. I think I might like to identify as part of that if I had the opportunity.