The Big Issue : Edition 480
20 THEBIGISSUE20MAR–2APR2015 A COUPLE OF years ago, the genealogy website ancestry.com.au ran a special promotion around Australia Day to attract new customers: ‘Search for your convict ancestors FREE...’ It listed some notable Australians who claim convict ancestry, including chef Maggie Beer and cricketer Rod Marsh. The lives of the first Australian convicts are fascinating to many people. Proving ancestry can even spark a kind of rugged pride. In the popular version of Australia’s history, the convicts’ crimes were often petty, the punishment was harsh and there were often extenuating circumstances – not least the squalor of industrialising Britain. But there is much less affection for, and interest in, people serving time in Australian prisons today. Most Australians have never been inside a correctional facility. Jail is a black hole – a place where governments promise they’ll send drunk drivers and paedophiles for ever-longer sentences as proof they are ‘tough on crime’. What happens to the people in there and, especially, what happens to them after they’ve served their sentences, is seldom discussed. But these issues merit consideration. Prison populations in Australia swelled almost 10% between 2013 and 2014, reoffending rates are high (three in five prisoners have served sentences before), and the Indigenous Australian incarceration rate is truly alarming. Indigenous people account for just 2% of the Australian population; 27% of the prisoner population. Trent [not his real name] is now an apprentice tiler in Adelaide, but he used to have a drug problem and recently completed a prison sentence for theft. He believes Australia’s prisons are largely counterproductive. “There’s not really much rehabilitation in prison,” he says. “It’s really a place to house people who have done the wrong thing and that’s it... It’s pretty sad. In the time that I was there, I saw a number of people who were released on parole and back in prison within two or three weeks... because [prison] is all they know.” Trent is one of 12 ex-prisoners from South Australia who have been working on a photography project called Returning the Gaze. The participants were each given a disposable camera which, over a series of months, they used to depict aspects of their life after prison. The project is run by Flinders University social work researcher Michele Jarldorn and is based on a research method called ‘photovoice’, which has its roots in documentary photography. Jarldorn says the idea was to get a sense from ex-prisoners about the challenges of daily life after prison. “The main thing...has been to let [ex- prisoners] have a voice because so often the loudest voice is the voice of authority,” Jarldorn says. “This is not to minimise victims of crimes’ experiences or their needs. It’s about recognising that some of the people who end up in prison have had some pretty crappy treatment.” Hundreds of photographs were produced by the participants over a period BEYOND BARS AS PART OF A PHOTOGRAPHY PROJECT IN ADELAIDE, EX-PRISONERS ARE DOCUMENTING LIFE BEFORE AND AFTER JAIL.