“The first time you ever get locked up, you get a MIN [master index number] number and that’s your number. It stays with you for the rest of your life. I spent the past 15 years in prison carrying that number. It’s 329910.”
Chris, 32, is an ex-addict. He has spent almost all of his adult life in jail and has served sentences in just about every prison in NSW for a broad range of offences.
“I never used to think, I used to just act, and look where it got me,” he said. “I wasted fifteen years of my life.”
“Every time I’m out, something always goes wrong. I’m trying to make it a fresh beginning.”
"They just walk out the door. They just get left to go."
Chris walked out the door of John Maroney prison in Windsor at the beginning of September. There to pick him up was Paula Saiz, a transitional worker with the Community Restorative Centre [CRC].
The CRC is a non-government organization that works with prisoners, ex-prisoners and their families, providing support for them post-release.
“He doesn’t have ID, he doesn’t have transport, no money, he doesn’t read and write, he’s anxious, he’s frightened… they just walk out the door. They just get left to go,” Ms Saiz said.
She meets ex-prisoners as they are released to help them access essential services and get some basic clothing. Although CRC does not provide cash support, they help negotiate Centrelink, emergency housing and job search by acting as advocates for men and women who have been released from prison.
"The men and women we work with know how to be in jail."
Dr Mindy Sotiri, CRC’s Program Director, says these services are essential to helping prisoners transition back into the community.
“The majority of our clients have spent most of their lives being managed in the criminal justice setting rather than being supported in the community,” said Dr Sotiri. "Even though it’s not a great environment, it’s routine, people know what’s what and a lot of the men and women we work with know how to be in jail.”
Taking into account his past history with drugs, multiple sentences and financial situation, Dr Sotiri estimates that the chances of someone like Chris re-offending are around 83 per cent, based on research including BOCSAR data, Corrective Services data and studies conducted at the University of New South Wales.
This year the CRC contracted the Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research to provide reoffending and recidivism data on the ex-prisoners who has participated in their programs. Of those who completed, the return to prison rate (measured over two years) was found to be 12 per cent.
“The more times you go to prison the higher the recidivism rate.”
“Getting out of jail is described by most of the people we work with as much tougher than the experience of imprisonment itself,” Dr Sotiri said.
“When you’ve spent a lot of your life in jail, how you live is going to be informed by those experiences. The experience of imprisonment itself is the single greatest risk factor for recidivism. The more times you go to prison the higher the recidivism rate.”
Public, political, and media support for such programs is often low. Former NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell telling radio host Alan Jones that we should “lock them [violent criminals] up and throw away the key”.
“The dignity of victims of crime is a whole other conversation, but it’s not an either-or,”
Dr Sotiri believes that the focus on the rights of victims is important but points out that offenders also have human rights.
“The dignity of victims of crime is a whole other conversation, but it’s not an either-or,” she said. “The whole point of human rights is that everybody, regardless of who they are, is accorded certain rights as a consequence of their humanity.
“In some ways it’s less about forgiveness and more about the pragmatics. Whether or not you forgive someone, that’s got to be a personal decision. If you want to reduce crime, then that point of transition is actually a really smart place to target things.”
She also points to the fact that many prisoners are not incarcerated for serious offences, with 89 per cent of people released from prison having served less than two years.
"It’s less about forgiveness and more about the pragmatics."
Despite the CRC’s success in drastically reducing the recidivism rate of its clients, the funding has been slashed. The organisation receives support from 12 different funding streams, both State and Federal. Last year there were dramatic reforms to three of these streams (NSW Corrective Services, Family and Community Services and National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness) which meant that CRC lost more than $1 million and almost all of their programs supporting men being released from prison had to be shut down.
"In some ways it’s less about forgiveness and more about the pragmatics,” says Dr. Sotiri. “Whether or not you forgive someone, that’s got to be a personal decision. If you want to reduce crime, then that point of transition is actually a really smart place to target things.”
“Anyone can change. I’m trying to change right now.”
“If you can’t provide a pathway for people they’re going to reoffend. For most people coming out of custody we’re not able to support them the way we’ve been able to support Chris. And that, ultimately, is going to lead to an increase in crime.”
“If I didn’t have Paula, I don’t know what I would do,” Chris said. “I’d probably be out hanging out with bad crowds and getting up to no good again. This is better because at least I had something to look forward to.
“Anyone can change. I’m trying to change right now.”
Watch the video story to see Chris describe the world he experiences out from behind bars.