This article is part of our June theme, which focuses on Indigenous People and their human rights. Read our Editorial for more on this theme.
In February, Right Now focused on the topic of prisoners’ rights; an issue notable by its absence from the human rights debate in Australia. Sarah Morgante from Whitelion acknowledged that:
“It’s a difficult area. I was lucky enough to sit in on a speech by Julian Burnside [who said that] people do do things in society … that do require a custodial sentence … We shouldn’t further punish people by not giving them access to services, by not giving them access to rehabilitation, in an effort to change their lives when they’re released. We punish them enough by depriving them of their liberty.”
We punish them enough by depriving them of their liberty.
This is one of the central concerns for the not-for-profit organisation Whitelion, which is active in New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania. Whitelion began running mentorship and employment programs because it felt there was a gap in the transitional services for young people leaving juvenile centres. Whitelion helps to rehabilitate juvenile offenders and to assist with their transition back into the community to reduce the risk of re-offending.
According to Sarah, the organisation is “set up to support young people who are involved either in the youth justice system or the child protection system, or who are at risk of entering those two systems.” Whitelion’s concern is not just about what happens to kids and youth while they are in a juvenile centre, but also what transpires when they leave.
“It’s very difficult for them to re-engage in housing or employment or education. It’s about setting them up with opportunities while they are in custody to build up some skills”, Sarah explains. The aim of Whitelion’s program is to enable the young people “to exit custody with a plan and a focus”, and the organisation considers one of its main responsibilities to be engaging the community in the lives of young people involved in the juvenile justice or child protection systems.
“There’s a mix of paid role models but also community volunteers who go into the centres on a weekly basis,” Sarah says. Whitelion runs pre-employment programs to help young people to develop skills whilst they are in custody, as well as visitation programs during which role models and mentors visit the centres each week and engage the young people in a range of activities, including sports and yoga.
Last month, Whitelion is held their annual major fundraiser – Bail Out – which assists with the funding of their programs. Sarah notes that while every charity needs to raise money, this is often done in a generic way; “You go to a ball and you’ll have a meal and there’ll be a band and whatever.” She emphasises that Bail Out is a different kind of fundraiser.
“Our major fundraising event is actually giving people the experience of our service and what our young people go through. People agree to participate and they raise $1000 for their bail.”
Participants, or “inmates”, are then treated the same way prisoners would be. “You go through the whole thing – you get fingerprinted, you get photographed, … you get police yelling in your face, you get bad prison food and then you go through probably three or four hours of an inmate experience.”
There’ll be a lot of people out there who don’t actually conceptualise that children go through this stuff.
There will be a range of different events that occur during the participants’ time in prison – including being locked in solitary confinement. The aim is to not only raise money but to raise awareness of how the prison system operates on the inside; Bail Out is partially designed to help people understand the issues faced by young people in prison. “There’ll be a lot of people out there who don’t actually conceptualise that children go through this stuff,” Sarah said.
Past participants in Bail Out have been extremely affected by the experience of being locked up.
“Certainly even for that short period of time – two or three hours – it’s a profound experience for a lot of people, that deprivation of liberty and being demeaned and made to feel small … They know it’s not serious but their experience of that can be quite instrumental in terms of how they feel and how they respond.”
This is just one evening for Bail Out participants, but for Whitelion, “this is our whole world.” Sarah comments that: “If one young person goes through an experience like this or ten young people, it’s too many. It’s not front-of-mind for most people, so even if for an hour or for five minutes if they’re reading a newspaper article about Bail Out and it becomes front-of-mind, that’s important for us.”
Whitelion also works in partnership with the Indigenous organisation Murrenda Aboriginal Community Care to provide guidance and support for the programs they implement with respect to young Indigenous people.
In April Sarah spoke at Read and Rights about the benefits and pitfalls of the Koori Court for young Indigenous offenders. She said the Koori Court is a system that young Indigenous offenders can access.
“[They] need to plead guilty, and then when they show up, it’s presided over by a children’s court … It’s about the elders administering some type of program or, for want of a better word, punishment for the young person in place of a custodial sentence.”
Although she acknowledged that others have found flaws with the Koori Court, Whitelion has witnessed its effectiveness and positive impact on young Indigenous people. “Where a young person is supported, and where a young person is willing to take those steps, we have seen it work well”, Sarah says “There’s no doubt about that.” She adds: “If a young person is guilty and they’re willing to own their behaviour and what they’ve done, and willing to try and come back from that, then it’s a perfectly appropriate opportunity for them to have.”
Sarah provided an example of this, describing the case of one young Indigenous offender. The elders at the Koori Court suggested that he should be sent to a four-month intensive residential rehabilitation program.
“If he agreed to go, then he would not receive a custodial sentence. He agreed and he stayed there for four months. He was able to make some significant gains in his life – physically, mentally, in terms of his family, all of those sorts of things. Now without that option, he was most certainly facing a custodial sentence.”
We could provide every program and every worker and every support available – [but] it’s when a young person is ready that it happens.
Whitelion operates under the premise that “irrespective of their offences … every young person has the potential and the opportunity to try and change things and bring about for themselves a better life and better choices.”
“We really believe that Whitelion can continue to provide opportunities for young people, but it’s the young person themselves who has to be ready to take that opportunity,” Sarah said. “We could provide every program and every worker and every support available – [but] it’s when a young person is ready that it happens.”
Bail Out was held on 11 May in NSW, 25 May in Victoria and Tasmania, and will be held 16 August in South Australia.