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Closing The Gap

 

In 25 years since the tabling of the 339 recommendations from the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, we have seen an abominable increase in the rate of the incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men and women and of our children to Juvenile Detention.

 

Researcher Gerry Georgatos has inverted the rates of incarceration of our people to crude total reach and the extensiviness of the jailing of our people is both tragic and damning. As an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisation, Ngalla Maya has stepped up to make a difference.

 

According to Gerry Georgatos, nationally one in 9 of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have been to prison. It is worst in Western Australia and the Northern Territory - one in 6. 

 

Ngalla Maya has ensured in the last couple of years that many individuals who were at-risk or likely to reoffend following their release from prison, that they were supported, mentored, committed to training or education and are now employed.

 

If this nation is to go forward and redress past wrongs, the original sins to our people, the cruelties that many of us still endure today, then we must help those who finish up in prison. If we can help them, change lives, reduce incarceration levels at least to parity between the general population and the Aborginal and Torres Strait Islander population then we will go a long way to 'Closing the Gap.' 

 

The suicide rates of our people are an abomination and should have led to Australian Governments translating this tragedy into a national priority. But they have not, therefore we must do everything we can to help our own. Ngalla Maya will do everything it can - as it has - and in tandem with its partner, the First Nations Homelessness Project & Advocacy Service, and with all  our other partners to  provide opportunity and support to those of our people who cry out for this.

 

We know what works for our people - for us.  

 

We need to work with our young - and with older - and those we help will help others and they too help others. 

 

 

 

 

Mervyn Eades' keynote speech at The Supreme and Federal Court Judges Conference - January 24, 2017

 

 

On the ground we stand today, my ancestors walked, ancestors who could never have imagined what only less than two centuries ago would befall them and at a pace so rapid, that today we are walking around picking up the pieces, trying to hold young and older lives together.

 

It is our duty as survivors to do everything we can for our peoples, to ensure that all of our people have opportunity and hope and that they can live full lives. But the grim reality is that far too many of our people live half-lives, poor lives, and in many instances dirt-poor lives. It is grim reality that far too many of my people are denied opportunity – and are denied the right to be who we as a cultural people and denied the opportunity to be equal in opportunities that are not denied to those who are non-Aboriginal who now walk this continent.

 

You are in Western Australia today, the State with the worst record in the nation for our people. I take a quote from a good friend to our people, a good friend to me and to Ngalla Maya Aboriginal Corporation, and that is from our Brown brother and researcher, Gerry Georgatos, who has travelled to hundreds of communities and homelands of our peoples throughout this nation – “The more west we journey across this continent, the worse the hits on our First Nations brothers and sisters, the worse the poverty, the more the homelessness, the higher the arrest and jail rates, the higher the suicide toll. It is worst in Western Australia where today one in 13 of Aboriginal adult males is in prison.

 

Can you imagine this? One in 13 of our men are in prison today in this State.

 

Gerry Georgatos has inverted the rates that we all know, such as our people are jailed at 15 times the White rate, he has inverted them to emphasise the extent of the incarceration of our people in this country and how it reaches into the majority of our families. According to Gerry one in 9 of our people nationally has been to prison. This is outrageous. But it is even worse in the Northern Territory and Western Australia – with one in 6 having been to prison. One in six!

 

Western Australia is the mother of all jailers of our people in this nation. I was one of the one in six who has been to jail. From 13 to 31 years old I was in and out of juvenile detention and prison over a period of 18 years. I lost my parents young and well I don’t have to tell you my story as it is a story many of us have lived and all of us have heard. Today I want to tell you the story of Ngalla Maya Aboriginal Corporation and the future story, one I hope that will be narrated and translated into reality for our people in our immediate future, from today and touching the lives of our peoples tomorrow.

 

Many of our people have been supported through affirmative actions and other means to prosperity and more of our people are entering parliaments, the business sector, enterprise, and are well-heeled. But how much do many of us need and how much should we increase our personal wealth before we step into sponsoring the ways forward for those of our brothers and sisters who as Gerry Georgatos describes live below the poverty line, many dirt-poor, disconnected from hope and who are helpless? I know those people… they were in every cell of every juvenile detention centre, of every prison I was incarcerated in. 40 per cent of our people continue to live below the poverty line.

 

Every time I came out of juvenile detention and prison I had no hope on the horizon, I came out worse for wear. It was 15 years ago the last time I came out and I looked around and decided that I need to be one of the few who lead the way with some authentic support for our people inside, that we must help them while they are inside and even more so when they come out. I had lost a brother in prison, my youngest brother, 18 years old, to suicide. I have lost relatives and friends to suicide and to prisons, to miserable lives that they could not raise themselves out of.

 

Surely, you know that in the first year post-prison-release that our people are ten times more likely to die from suicide or an unnatural death than while in custody? That is the sense of hopelessness and helplessness they feel.

 

I set up the Ngalla Maya Aboriginal Corporation on the smell of an oily rag. Ngalla Maya is about the reintegration of our men and women into society, into hope, into opportunity as they come out of prison. We are an untold success story and one that governments and the private sector should be investing in, growing, supporting. You all here today have the capacity to come together and help us argue the authentic turning around of the lives of our people who have it worst, who are damned by incarceration. This is the joint venture we need with the Wadjela, with the Guddia, with the Balanda, and if you don’t know those terms, then it’s with the White fella. A joint venture, where you – the most influential and most respected in our nation rise up and call for what Ngalla Maya provides to occur right throughout the nation, for our poorest, our most vulnerable, for our most maligned, most neglected. With only the most minimal funding, and all of us at Ngalla Maya thus far working as volunteers, in the last 18 months we have turned around the lives of 120 former inmates – of brothers and sisters who like me had been contained for years in dank concrete cells, locked behind bars, with the majority of us destined to be returned to cells again and again. 120 former inmates – half of them women – are now employed because of Ngalla Maya. I visit the juvenile detention centres and prisons and talk to our people and commit them to education and training through Ngalla Maya once they leave prisons. The queues of our people inside wanting our support are long and this is where you all here today can make the difference and help Ngalla Maya address this unmet need. You can call into the consciousness of the nation, and therefore journey into the policies of governments what works in the turning around of lives. If you want to see less of our people in your courtrooms, more of our people with somewhere to be turned to other than a cold and dank jail cell then Ngalla Maya works with educational and trainer providers, with RTOs, to secure training and qualifications for our people coming out of prison, whether in construction, engineering, retail, hospitality and commercial cookery and much more. However we do not just strand them with a qualification – we also secure them the job. We have entered into understandings with employers to employ our graduates. We do not disengage once they are employed and we continue to mentor and support our people, our graduates and we continue to be there for them, for instance with workplace issues we will mediate, and provide advocacy for other family members with health, welfare, housing issues. We are there for them. Our success is unparalleled and on the smell of an oily rag we have the highest retention rate of our people coming out of prison into our programs and the highest success rate in the nation of our people coming out of prison in picking up skills and scoring the job that not only turns around their life but the lives of the rest of the family, changes the family dynamics from negatives to positives. The social return is there and we are doing better than what White Privilege thus far has allowed for us.

 

When we could not pay the rent at Ngalla Maya last year, when we were many weeks behind, word got out we were in trouble and graduates of Ngalla Maya, with good jobs, of brothers who for years had been inside those cells where they and I were left to rot in, they paid the rent. They paid the rent – they paid the rent. We didn’t ask anyone, they heard and they came to the fore.

 

I ask today of the great leaders here, of the brightest Wadjela, Guddia, Balanda minds in the nation that nevertheless whose forebears tore the heart and soul out of my people for two centuries, that where we stand today in time, with many of you with hearts bleeding for the sins of the past, let us not leave behind far too many of my people to rot in the prisons as so many of our people were left to rot on the missions and reserves, smashed by colonialism and post-colonialism. Please take to task the wrongs and injustices of today and do not let them slide as the wrongs and injustices of yesteryear ruined and killed so many of our people. There is no other program or framework in the nation that can turnover change as well as what Ngalla Maya has achieved. Justice Reinvestment is a fine step in the right direction, but it comes nowhere near the practical achievements of Ngalla Maya. I will refer again to the brother and friend, Gerry Georgatos who like us does much to change the lives in the immediate, in the now, for the most vulnerable of the vulnerable, for the poorest – and he describes Ngalla Maya “as the most profound program of its type in the nation, nothing else compares to the authenticity and results of Ngalla Maya”. Ngalla Maya is inundated everyday with walk-ins but I remind as we travel the paths eventually to some government funding, that we will be much more and stronger and reach many more of our people, in unprecedented numbers, if you raise your own bar in stirring for the ways forward. We must come together and if this were to be so then for the first time the incarcerating of our people would begin to rapidly decrease. This is about transforming lives while also keeping us true to ourselves.

 

It is in the lifting of our poorest to a better place that should be a focus. I have spoken of Ngalla Maya Aboriginal Corporation here today and there is one other program that we work in tandem with but the limitation of time today does not give me opportunity to speak to in-depth but whose name I will leave with you because like us it too makes the authentic difference for the most vulnerable of our people. With this program Ngalla Maya works in tandem so as to transform the lives of not only an individual but also the family, the community, to validate everyone and to nourish the soul. I have spoken of enterprise in the turning around of lives for those of our people inside jails, and who without us on the inside would be broken down further. I will also mention the First Nations Homelessness Project and Advocacy Service, who also are delivering on the smell of an oily rag – we work in tandem them with them because they are imperative in the ways forward for our people, for our most vulnerable. They are the way forward to an end to the high rate of child removals and to an end to the high rate of evictions of families from public and private rental housing and to reducing negative behaviours. I mention them because I love them for what they do for our people here in Western Australia. They have achieved a 100 per cent record in preventing child removals by child protection authorities and in resolving issues and they have a 100 per cent record in preventing the eviction of families and in improving the lot of these families. They have the best record in the state in finding homes for our homeless, for stabilising lives and mentoring young families, in psychosocially supporting them, in refusing to disengage. I mention them because they have helped hundreds of our families. We need to change lives from the waywardness and desolation and hopelessness and helplessness that is the real incarceration of our people, an incarceration of those dealt hopelessness and helplessness that sadly many of your ancestors in their muddled-mindedness inflicted on our peoples and which today many Wadjela, Guddia, Balanda in our governments and in institutions of the state continue through contemporary muddled-mindedness and confusions to inflict damage and narratives of blame and failure.

 

I will work towards the conclusion of this opportunity to speak to you with the brief callout to you for you in turn to call for some urgent and long overdue rollouts of law or policy and for urgent amendments in how our people are presented before you predominately for offending borne out of poverty and hopelessness. However foremost I argue that lives must be changed as Ngalla Maya and as First Nations Homelessness do like no-one else in the nation.

 

I will argue that our people are scared of and do not trust the Wadjela, the Guddia, the Balanda and that it is a disgrace that in this state, Western Australia, but so too in the Northern Territory and elsewhere that the Custody Notification Service has not been implemented. I will not describe the Custody Notification Service because of course without exception each of you knows what it is. Miss Dhu would more than likely be alive today had there been such a service when she was immorally detained by police on August 2, 2014. Mr Ward would be alive today, so many would be alive, and many would never have been detained and jailed. You must urge that it must be rolled out nationally.  

 

I have printed out a few hundred copies of an article that I ask you to read about the need for the Custody Notification Service. If we cannot implement these smaller reforms and protections, these inexpensive reforms how then can we hold out hope for the bigger reforms?

 

NSW has led the way with the CNS but with so many of the nation’s arrests comprising our peoples, it is unjustifiable that the rest of the nation has not implemented this service.

 

The death of 22-year-old Ms Dhu in a Western Australian police watch house should have led to the immediate establishment of the CNS.

 

The CNS not only saves lives but has proven in NSW to reduce sentencing rates. But please read the article I have had shared to all of you today.

 

Furthermore, no-one should be locked up or jailed for fine defaults, for what in other words is their poverty. The jailing of fine defaulters was done away with in NSW in 1988 but 29 years later, here in Western Australia the jailing of fine defaulters continues. These are battles for you to rise to the occasion – our voices alone cannot expedite what your voices in tandem with ours could achieve. Justice should be a sprint and not a seemingly endless marathon. In the belief that the journey to justice is a marathon, many then have to live in misery and suffering, many die from broken and ruined living.

 

The laws that are in place that make worse instead of better, that give rise to reoffending instead of redemption, that focus on the punitive instead of the nourishing, that make hopeless for all time the lives of our peoples, are many – but they are not beyond you to fix, to repair, to do the right that we are all in the first instance equal and in the second instance to reach equality and a redemptive justice system that there shall be compassion and affirmative actions.

 

Do away with mandatory sentencing laws, do away with laws harsh on the poorest, do away with laws that hurt the homeless, who make ‘vagrants’ the most vulnerable among us, do away with laws that stigmatise instead of choosing understanding, do away of any ‘paperless’ arrest laws.

 

Please, you, those who preside over our courts, challenge any government instrument, such as the Department of Housing and the Department of Child Protection when it does not make equal the representations between the parties, when the scales of justice are weighted unfairly to them in calling for you to take children from their families, for child removals and public housing evictions of families, for far too often these are their first port of calls and not the last resort. For I remind that Ngalla Maya and the First Nations Homelessness Service and Advocacy Projects have proven them wrong and unjust that people cannot be assisted, helped, engaged. We do not disengage but they do. I will refer once again to the beloved brother, the courageous researcher, Gerry Georgatos – he states, “The highest risk group to suicide are individuals who as children were removed from their families, and the next highest are individuals who have been incarcerated, and thereafter individuals who are homeless but a particularly elevated risk group are members of large families who have been recently evicted. Not only are they at elevated risk to suicide, but also to other unnatural death and to incarceration.”

 

Please argue for affirmative actions. But argue these actions for those who are poorest, who are vulnerable. Argue for a focus on the 40 per cent of our people who live below the poverty line and not for more to be done for those who are now doing well. Do not focus spending on studying us and in so doing deliver the quid, the funding, to Black and White brothers and sisters who are doing well, but the funding must hit the ground for those doing it tough, those denied opportunity and those denied opportunity to such an extent that all the most recent mantras of ‘high expectations’ cannot bridge, access or make happen. The workers of Ngalla Maya and the army of workers that is Jennifer Kaeshagen’s First Nations Homelessness Project have worked for two years without any remuneration and we have all dug into our pockets again and again. We walk among those that sadly so many of you have to jail because laws harsh and unjust, where redemption and mediation have not been extended as part of the system that you urgently need to challenge in ways and words and calls yet not heard.

 

I thank you for the opportunity today to present Ngalla Maya to you today, to describe the practical and the real, to present something more than reports which are majorly only but frameworks and recommendations alone, that are merely the abstract and are at the whim of governments and at the discretion of White Privilege. I have today described ways forward, paths where one day all our peoples, you and us, can be treated and walk as equals. If we do not take the steps forward in the now that should be taken, if we do not find the will for everything for instance I have touched on here today then rest assured that as Gerry Georgatos, who has never been wrong in his research and estimations, that by 2025, more than half the nation’s prison population will be comprised of our people, will be Black, and that in Western Australia this will culminate to 2 in 3 of the prison population comprised of my Black brothers and sisters, and in the Northern Territory where it already is more than 4 in 5, it will be just about 100 per cent Black.

 

As we stand we here on my Noongar Country – on Country that not even the errors and misjudgements of your courts and of governments through the debacle of Native Title should never dare take from us and hence reduce and fracture us as the First Peoples of these lands, I thank you for giving me this voice to speak for those of our peoples today who come before you all too often into your courts. Thank you