Visitors, letters and phone calls are few and far between for many of the Northern Territory’s Indigenous prisoners.
- More video teleconferencing facilities could help prisoners stay connected to their families, advocates say
- High travel costs restrict some families from visiting their loved ones in prison
- One elder says losing touch with family can lead to homelessness and anti-social behaviour after release
Family members often find it too expensive to travel from remote communities to city jails, illiteracy can make letter writing difficult and phone calls tend to be short and timed.
It has seen some prisoners lose all channels of meaningful communication with their family, with consequences that can outlast the length of their jail stay.
Now there are renewed calls for more video teleconferencing technology to be installed in remote police stations and council offices to help connect prisoners with their families who cannot afford regular visits.
‘You feel lost within yourself’
President of the Criminal Lawyers Association of the Northern Territory, Marty Aust, said it could be “heartbreaking” to see a person sentenced to prison at a remote circuit court.
“Many members of their family, if not members of the entire community, will come whilst they’re taken away on a prison plane and they know that will not see that person, they will probably not speak to that person for months or years,” he said.
Darwin resident Mati Tamwoy says losing touch with family can have terrible consequences for Indigenous people in jail. (ABC News: Ian Redfern)
Darwin resident Mati Tamwoy, who is originally from Badu Island in the Torres Strait, has seen what isolation can do to people in prison.
“I know personally myself, one or two cases where people have committed suicide in prison because of loss of family, because of loss of connection,” he said.
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“Distance seems to play a big part within your mind because if you can’t see your family, it becomes a loss, you feel lost within yourself.”
Tiwi Islands elder Gibson Farmer Illortaminni agreed.
Gibson Farmer Illortaminni says it can be too expensive for some families to visit relatives in jail. (ABC News: Matt Brann)
“They get really frustrated in jail — ‘why are my family not coming to visit me in jail?’ or ‘maybe they forgot about me’,” he said.
The Tiwi elder said if people were not visited regularly during their prison stay they felt their community did not want them back, so ended up sleeping rough in town after they were released.
“They’re probably thinking in their mind, ‘I don’t want to go back because I did a bad thing in the community and I don’t want to go back and face in the community’ so they sort of isolate themselves,” Mr Farmer Illortaminni said.
“We need to bring our young fellas back, because as soon as they come out of jail they’ll be going to the bottle shop or hanging around with their mates and they’ll sort of get themselves into a lot of trouble, and then they’re back in jail again.”
Yet those who take the long journey to visit their relatives in prison also face risks.
Mr Tamwoy said people who travelled from communities into town to visit their families in prison could find themselves “trapped” and in trouble.
“When they stay around they connect with other families … drinking and whatnot … getting into trouble,” Mr Tamwoy said.
“Before you know it, they’re walking out [of jail] and you’re walking in.”
Hope in video teleconferencing
Mr Farmer Illortaminni said more video teleconferencing would help families stay connected and cut down on travel costs.
He pointed to the set-up in Wurrumiyanga, where Corrections services offices had a television.
“They can always organise a teleconference if they all get together and people can talk to their family in jail,” he said.
“If we set that up [at more places] it would change [the prisoner’s] mindset so they can look at his family, his grandkids, look at the old ladies, the old men and he’ll feel confidence in himself that people are saying ‘you’re welcome to come back home on the condition you don’t misbehave’.”
The Northern Territory Minister for Justice, Natasha Fyles agreed the idea had merit.
“I’m very happy to take this away and speak to the new Corrections Commissioner around what it would take to implement the resources in our correctional facilities, noting that we have seen those tele facilities, the video conferencing, in more and more remote communities and remote locations in the Northern Territory,” she said.