July 2010


Life sentence

By Victoria Laurie
Life sentence

Malcolm is 12 years old and lives in Australia’s most prosperous state, Western Australia. Dark-eyed and golden-cheeked, he shows signs of lively intelligence but he keeps his eyes lowered and rarely talks to people he doesn’t know. One of his cherished possessions is an Aboriginal dot painting, on the back of which is written his dad’s name and the words “Hakea Prison”.

His father, Anthony, has since graduated to one of Perth’s higher security prisons, which is also where Malcolm’s 21-year-old brother, Tyson, is serving his sentence. Malcolm’s 14-year-old cousin, Jayden, is in and out of juvenile detention, and his 23-year-old stepsister, Charlene, is in Western Australia’s only high-security women’s prison.

Charlene’s behaviour contributed to Malcolm and his family recently being evicted; they now have no permanent place to live. Last year, Charlene landed on their doorstep between jail stints; she had nowhere else to go and parole requires an address. Malcolm’s mother, Sandra, had little choice but to let her stay, even though she already had her hands full with Malcolm and her two younger children, seven-year-old Robert and six-year-old Tina. One day Charlene got stoned on glue, jumped the fence and landed in the middle of a children’s birthday party, traumatising the neighbours.

It was the last in a litany of problems that had dogged Sandra’s tenancy and led to her ousting by the Department of Housing, the state’s renter of last resort. Sandra is only 39 but looks older; she’s spent more than 20 turbulent years with Anthony, their time together punctuated by his stints behind bars and her prison visits, dragging the kids along. The pair met when Sandra was 16; she took on caring for Charlene and one of Anthony’s sisters, before having her own three children.

Welfare agencies have played a major part in Sandra’s life, offering support in intermittent bursts to help her deal with crises. She spent her childhood in foster care and in the charge of various relatives, as her own mother was run down and killed by a car when Sandra was five.

Recently, another king-hit has come along: both Anthony and Tyson have been denied parole under the Prisoners Review Board’s tougher stance, which has led to many prisoners serving their full terms. It means Sandra is left to keep the family afloat on her own for longer, a prospect made more daunting by the eviction and subsequent weeks of moving around. The school term starts and Robert and Tina are yet to be enrolled anywhere. Malcolm is refusing to go to school at all, regardless of where they end up living. He can’t read or write, and is adamant he won’t be ridiculed in front of other kids.

Although he’s only 12, Malcolm smokes cigarettes and gets stoned whenever his cousins sneak him the stuff. Not long ago, he was asleep in the back of a car while a couple of his cousins, one wielding a crowbar, held up two terrified girls at a bus stop, snatching their cash and mobile phones. Malcolm must now face giving evidence against his cousins in court.

As an Aboriginal boy, Malcolm is dangerously poised to potentially follow his cousins, father, brother and stepsister into incarceration. WA leads the nation in the rate at which it jails its Aboriginal citizens; the state’s chief justice asserts it is one of the highest Indigenous incarceration rates in the world. I’ve arranged to meet Malcolm and his family over a period of months to try to find out why this is so. If he lived in a remote Aboriginal community to the north – where people live on the fringes, plagued by boredom, alcohol and poor schooling, and isolated by language and sheer distance from mainstream Australia – some of the reasons would be obvious.

But Malcolm grew up in suburban Perth, well within reach of welfare organisations and schooling, and English is his first language. So why is he statistically 43 times more likely to go to jail than a non-Aboriginal youngster? Why are three-quarters of children who are in detention from Aboriginal families? I wonder if Malcolm’s ‘card’ is already marked “do not pass go, do not collect $200, go directly to jail.”

Six years before Malcolm was born, Recommendation 92 of the final report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody urged that imprisonment become a “sanction of last resort”. By 1997, the year of Malcolm’s birth, jails in WA were overflowing; this was also the year Malcolm’s father first headed inside. In 1999, the then chief justice, David Malcolm, expressed his alarm that “for the past 20 years, WA has had the highest rate of adult imprisonment of any state in Australia.” In December that year, I wrote a newspaper article about how the statistics for Aboriginal adults seemed scarcely credible: “Take a large country town of 100,000 people, lock up almost 6000 of them and you have the current prison custody rate for Aboriginal men.”

More than a decade later, the figure has risen to 8000 Aboriginal men per 100,000 members of the Aboriginal community. “That’s one in every 12-and-a-half Aboriginal men spending tonight in prison in WA,” the current chief justice, Wayne Martin, tells me, as we sit in his wood-panelled office in Perth’s Supreme Court building. Observations such as these have not endeared him to the Barnett Liberal government, whose ascension to power in September 2008 – on a “tough on crime” platform – has led to an extraordinary rise in prison numbers.

Martin says the crackdown on parole by the Prisoners Review Board has kept many people behind bars for longer and asserts that changes to sentencing have seen people being sent to prison for longer – often, for less serious crimes. “The majority of the prison intake over recent times has been fine defaulters and those who have been convicted of offences at the lower end of the spectrum,” he told a law forum last November. “A significant proportion of the intake has psychiatric or intellectual disability issues, and, of course, a very significant proportion of the intake is Aboriginal.”

The number of Aboriginal prisoners rose an extraordinary 83% in a period of 18 months, Martin observed, which was more than double the rate of increase among non-Indigenous Australians. “It’s hard to do international comparisons but in the US they lock up more people than the rest of the world by a significant margin,” he tells me. “Their rate is 1000 per 100,000, and the people they lock up most are African Americans, at about eight times the normal rate. That’s about the same as adult Aboriginal men in Western Australia, about 8000 per 100,000.”

Yet, he continues, Aboriginal people constitute a far smaller proportion of WA’s population (around only 3.5%) than does the African-American population in the US. “This suggests to me that Aboriginal people in Western Australia are quite possibly the most incarcerated ethnic group in the world,” he says.

Martin adjusts his glasses and continues: “Of course, the main reason we lock up so many Aboriginal people in our criminal justice system is because they commit a lot of crime. What we haven’t been successful at doing is reducing the rates of offence, [which would mean providing] better health, better housing, tackling alcohol and drug abuse, kids going to school.”

I have arranged to meet Sandra at the Rockingham Courthouse at 9 am to attend her eviction hearing but she hasn’t showed up. I stand in the sunshine outside the courthouse, a large, bland edifice surrounded by empty building lots.

I then drive to Sandra’s house, five minutes away. The suburb is new and neat, flush with mining boom money that is reflected in well-tended gardens and new Land Cruisers or large boats in driveways. Navy personnel live in the neighbourhood, too; one couple, who live across the road from Sandra, bought scooters for her kids.

Sandra’s house is distinguished by dead bushes that line the few metres up to the carport, where an old sofa, a discarded fridge and a defunct TV furnish the back wall. A pink bedspread is draped over the slatted wood partition that separates the carport from the backyard. Prying eyes are not welcome.

Sandra emerges and the front door slams shut behind her. Then it opens again and slams shut half-a-dozen more times. “It’s Malcolm,” mutters Sandra, “he’s mad at me.” She tells me he resents being left in charge of his younger siblings, who are apparently still asleep. Another child has been living in the house too: 14-year-old Jamie, whose mother is in jail and who has been placed in Sandra’s care.

Her dark hair combed back, Sandra pulls on a clean jumper and gathers her belongings into a large pink handbag she takes everywhere. She’s slightly shaky; she admits openly she’s a “quiet drinker”. We drive back to court but it’s too late. In Sandra’s absence, the court registrar has acceded to the housing department’s request and Sandra has until four o’clock that day to vacate the premises. Her aunt Vai comes to help. “That’s what we do,” she says, with resignation in her voice. Her own daughter and husband are away in the eastern states, where the teenager is representing the state in basketball.

Vai sits on the low wall outside the court, with a watery-eyed Sandra beside her. She rings a dozen numbers, asks to speak to senior bureaucrats she knows and poses the obvious question: “Sandra’s being evicted. Where’s she supposed to take four kids?”

What follows is a nightmare of paperwork that Sandra can barely read and that I too find confusing. Applicant, appellant, respondent … Sandra is given a pink three-page form entitled “Order to stay proceedings” to fill in. When she fronts up to the counter, she’s told she has the wrong form. She laboriously completes a white three-page form, “Application to disagree with findings”. But in order for the document to be filed, she must pay $25 in cash, which she doesn’t have on her. The forms must be sent to the respondent, via fax, and returned to the courthouse. The cost of this is $6 and the distance to the post office minimal, but the degree of difficulty is high when you have no car and no money.

We file the forms and Sandra’s spirits lift, as if simply having someone else deal with bureaucracy boosts her confidence. We drive to the shopping centre and catch up with Jamie, who stops his bike and politely shakes my hand. He hardly looks like a kid who, Sandra tells me later, will front up to the Rockingham Courthouse the next day to face charges of shoplifting and entering a house with a view to stealing. There’s nobody but Sandra to juggle getting him there with the demands of her three recalcitrant children. I wonder if she will have better luck than she had today.

I look at Malcolm, jiggling his leg and staring off into the distance. He can be a “little shit”, according to his aunt Rachelle: “Answers back, tells adults to ‘get fucked’. I call ’im our rebel without a cause.” I think about the two girls whom Malcolm’s cousins menaced as he lay sleeping in the car. Such violence spurs voters in affluent WA on to urge for more police, more prisons, more jail time. The Barnett government has obliged with $640 million for 2590 new prison beds, a 50% rise in jail capacity.

The Department for Child Protection has been involved with Sandra’s children over the years. Shortly before Sandra was evicted, however, the department closed its file, advising a non-government welfare worker who is familiar with Sandra’s case that “she’s a good mother so we don’t need to be involved.”

“That’s not supposed to happen,” the worker tells me. “If a family is being evicted, DCP is supposed to open a file, but it has done the opposite in Sandra’s case.” A plethora of other welfare agencies have also opened – and seemingly closed – files on Sandra and her family. One document, “Strong Families Action Plan”, is telling; it lists nine agencies that were summoned to attend a meeting with Sandra in February of last year. Strong Families was formed to co-ordinate help for struggling Aboriginal families, after 15-year-old Susan Taylor was found hanged in 1999 and an inquest revealed that a multitude of unco-ordinated welfare agencies had failed miserably to protect her.

Sandra was referred to Strong Families because, according to her file, her family faced a range of issues, including “offending adult behaviour, poor school attendance, financial difficulties, alcohol abuse, accommodation at risk, mental health concerns”. Sandra turned up for the meeting but only three of the nine agency staff materialised – “a highly disappointing attendance”, the Strong Families co-ordinator noted disapprovingly in her report, “which meant we were unable to follow up with all areas of concern”. She went on: “If this matter continues I will be following up with the management of agencies who persist to fail in their obligations.”

At this time at least, Sandra appeared to be trying hard. A housing officer reported that Sandra “has been doing extremely well”, reducing an outstanding rental debt, improving her care in the house and signing a new lease. Sandra was attending a parenting program and the younger children were in school and enrolled in Scouts.

So why, a year later, is the family again in crisis? Perhaps it’s because Anthony and Tyson are stuck in jail for longer or because Charlene’s release from prison caused so much havoc or simply because Sandra is drinking more and coping less. Also, Malcolm is getting harder to control; when he has mucked up in the past, he has been dropped home by understanding local cops who know the family’s situation. But they’ve moved house so many times that he’s now more likely to be arrested by strangers.

According to the Australian Institute of Criminology, once found guilty, Malcolm is more than twice as likely as non-Indigenous juveniles to be given a jail term rather than a warning or diversionary rehabilitation program.

Chief Justice Martin says the recent auditor-general’s report shows that diversion from the court system “is decreasing in Western Australia, particularly amongst Aboriginal juveniles”. The reason is not overt discrimination, he says, but that “at every step in the process, the system works against [Indigenous youth]. The sort of factors the police are likely to take into account are ‘Have we seen this kid before?’ ‘What’s the family background like?’ ‘Is the kid attending school?’ Now Aboriginal children often score poorly on those assessments, so they’re more likely to find themselves in a court stream than in a diversion stream.” He argues that when the question of bail comes up, it’s the same issue: “‘Is there a safe place for a child to go?’ They’re more likely to be refused bail.”

I’m back outside the Rockingham Courthouse, waiting in the car. Sandra is late for her appeal against the eviction and I can see a woman pacing up and down. She’s carrying files and I assume she’s either a social worker or an advocate who has turned up to brief Sandra about ways to keep a roof over their heads.

I introduce myself and explain that I’m interested in the link between imprisonment, family breakdown and failed housing. “An interesting topic, that,” says the woman drily. It turns out she is from the Department of Housing.

“I’m the original recovery officer,” she tells me, as if I know the jargon. I ask her what Sandra’s chances of avoiding eviction are. “None at all, unfortunately,” she says, with an expression of regret. “Sandra has a long history; there have been a lot of agencies involved.” So what are her options now? “It’s up to Sandra,” she says, and names a few non-government housing agencies. Given there is a three-year waiting list for priority housing and her poor track record, Sandra has little hope of being rehoused by the state.

Sandra’s fate was sealed last November, when former housing minister and treasurer Troy Buswell declared that, as part of an “anti-social behaviour crackdown”, misbehaving renters would no longer be tolerated. “Quite simply,” Buswell told parliament, “the department is not going to turn a blind eye to poor behaviour.” Buswell has since been sacked as a minister by the premier, Colin Barnett, for improper use of taxpayer funds while conducting an extra-marital affair. But Buswell’s regime persists, including in the form of an increase in the use of restraining orders and other court orders “to keep disruptive visitors away from homes where visitors have caused anti-social behaviour”.

Sandra arrives with Tina in a pusher, Robert holding on to her legs and Malcolm dawdling a few metres behind. His eyes light up when I suggest we go and get a burger for breakfast. Later, in the courtroom, Sandra stands alone before the magistrate, the housing officer and a court usher. “This matter came before my registrar and you were not there. Did you communicate that you were on your way?” asks the magistrate.

Sandra’s voice immediately begins to falter, even though she has brought two character references and a copy of the restraining order she took out against Charlene. “Are you paying rent at the moment?” continues the magistrate. Sandra admits that she’s behind in rent payments; the housing officer informs the magistrate that Sandra owes $687.65. “What is the housing department’s attitude to continuing this tenancy?” the magistrate asks. “We don’t wish to continue on with this tenancy,” the housing officer tells him, outlining a long history of problems – trashed premises, a house fire, anti-social behaviour. Sandra has failed again.

The magistrate is not unsympathetic towards her. “I understand you have a lot on your plate at the moment,” he says. But the eviction notice stands. “I’d have much greater sympathy if your rent wasn’t eight weeks in arrears and the tenancy hadn’t expired.” Sandra picks up her bags and walks out, eyes red-rimmed. The housing woman comes up and touches her arm: “If you need to, you can ring me.” Sandra is in no mood for her sympathy. “I don’t want to talk to no one,” she says, grabbing the pusher.

Outside, she rolls a cigarette, hands shaking and eyes wet. Tina folds her arms around her mother and lands a big kiss on her cheek. The boys stay silent – their mother’s face says it all. “They push you on to other people, they say ‘Have you got someone else to go to?’ It doesn’t make it better for anyone else,” she mutters.

As if to cheer herself up, she takes out a crumpled photo of a young man in a green prison T-shirt and shorts. It’s her oldest son, Tyson, who resembles Malcolm but has a harder, wiser demeanour. Sandra tells me that when he was 17, he was hit by a car. “He smashed through the wind-screen,” she says matter-of-factly, “got dragged by his checked shirt four doors down the road. He got pins and a rod in his leg.” When Tyson was 18, he threatened a kid on a bike with a knife, then stole $50 and a mobile phone from him.

Tyson’s injury compensation case has been dragging on for years but Sandra is sure the money will come any day soon. “We might buy a house with the money,” she says. “Move into our own place one day.”

At Daydawn Advocacy Centre in inner-city Perth, Aboriginal families are waiting their turn to talk to the welfare worker and the lawyer – both volunteers. This is a shopfront operation funded by the Catholic Church and it runs on a shoestring. Last year, Daydawn dealt with more than 2000 clients, not counting the dozens of children who sit sprawled on the carpet drawing pictures.

Sister Dolores Coffey manages the steady stream of traffic. “We have about 12 people per day coming to us who are homeless or about to be evicted,” she says, scooping a toddler into her arms. “Some days it’s 14 families; you’ve got an amazing number out on the streets. You can’t send a child to school if they’re moving. If they’re not at school, they become delinquent, they’re not being looked after or they end up with relatives, and that doesn’t last.”

In WA, 40% of all women in jail are Aboriginal. “Much of it is for unpaid fines or [driver’s licence] points accumulation,” says the nun. “One 35-year-old woman stood under the eaves of a house when it was raining and she was arrested for loitering. She went to court the next morning, unrepresented, and her fine was $100. She went briefly to jail and her three children – eight, 12 and 16 – went to their grandparents. It meant a change of school, of place, of everything.”

“It’s gotten worse in the last three years since I’ve been here. Welfare agencies are sending people to us or sending them back to us. I think it’s because they can’t cope.” Working one-on-one with families can be effective, she says, but too often agencies give up on “unco-operative” clients. “They say ‘if you don’t engage, I can cross you off my books.’ Yet it’s their job to follow up.”

Similar frustration was conveyed to the federal government’s Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs during its inquiry into Indigenous juveniles and young adults in the criminal justice system earlier this year. The Children’s Court judge Denis Reynolds told the committee there had been a worrying decrease in the number of hands-on agency workers in WA; a senior police officer admitted that “the concept of joined-up government services is simply not occurring on the ground, especially in regional areas.”

Yet Chief Justice Wayne Martin’s evidence to the committee suggested that money to lock up juveniles in WA was almost infinite. He cited the WA auditor-general’s latest report “that showed that if you take the 250 worst kids appearing in the Children’s Court and track them between the ages of ten and 17, you’ll find they collectively cost the state of Western Australia $100 million dollars.” He pointed out that this averaged $400,000 per child.

“For $400,000 we could send them to Geelong Grammar, put them up at a Perth hotel during the summer, send them to a Swiss finishing school and still have change,” Martin told the committee. “The money we are spending simply is not working. It is not effective, so we have to think much more proactively, much more effectively, about solutions that actually work.”

Three months on from our first meeting, Sandra and the three kids have drifted south to the country town where she grew up. Released from jail, Anthony and Tyson have joined them; they’re all crowded into the sparsely furnished house that Malcolm’s grandfather, Aubrey, rents, though he is probably in breach of his lease.

We sit on the front verandah and Sandra forces Malcolm to come and say hello – he’s grown several centimetres and turned 13 but not much else is new. The younger children are at school down the road but not Malcolm. Sandra and a relative went to the local TAFE college, where they hope to enrol Malcolm. He wouldn’t set foot inside.

He seems less brooding, however, and he shadows his father, a small, dapper figure in a waistcoat and cloth cap who sits at a distance from his own 69-year-old father, Aubrey. All three generations are barely literate but education didn’t matter so much when Aubrey was a boy. “I started learning to be a shearer when I was 13,” he says, glaring at his grandson. “We’d go to farms and ask farmers for work, even to pick up rocks and get five bob a week. Now the money’s coming too free.”

Anthony readily admits he’s failed Malcolm by being frequently absent. “While I was in there he was uncontrollable, once I’m around, he’s more laid-back. Bits and pieces he can pick up but he’s not doin’ as well as a normal 13-year-old should be doin’ – readin’ and writin’. What puts him down is his confidence in himself, and his feeling that he’s being judged all the time by others.”

He knows what might work: “With Malcolm and kids like ’im, you’d have to do a one-on-one [tutoring] with him outside the school and then down the track make him go somewhere like a TAFE.” We call Malcolm over and I ask him about his dreams, his hopes. He shrugs and does not reply. Then his father asks. He looks up for a split second, then says, “To be a mechanic.”

Various names have been changed throughout this essay.

Victoria Laurie

Victoria Laurie is a Perth-based journalist and feature writer. She has written for the Australian and the Bulletin, and is the author of Design by Nature.

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