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*