There are some wide-ranging assumptions that “the community” will take care of vulnerable people and that “they” will take up what is available. Like, “There are services, aren’t there?”

True, there are. And there is usually bread available for $1 to $2 in supermarkets but the thing is, you have to know where to look.

Cuba St, Wellington ... negotiating life on the outsideFinancial, accommodation and food vulnerability are just three strands of the tightrope to re-integration that released prisoners walk. Yes, there are housing services but they are not guaranteed and if you don’t have your ID sorted (lost or stolen) it can be easy to feel like a shadow.

It takes a large amount of willpower, determination, resilience, sobriety and humility to manage the process. And support to stay well is essential if you have mental ill health. This year I’ve mentored a man (a former prisoner and post probation) who is also a talented artist. What I’ve had to appreciate is the reality of complex needs that affect his re-integration and the chance to make a new start. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. What is needed, I believe, are more one-on-one mentors to help the initial navigation of daily essentials.

Corrections provides post-release services such as Out of the Gate and Guided Release to help people transition from prison to the community. And since October 2016, it’s secured more than 1500 job placements for offenders. In addition, long-standing organisations such as PARS and the Salvation Army are there to support released prisoners. But like the $1 bread, you need to know who to ask, where to look – and it may not be available in geographically isolated areas.

It can be challenging for released prisoners seeking independence if they don’t connect to the fellowship offered by faith-based organisations. Living on $80 a week (left over after paying rent, for example, in a backpackers hostel) for food, health and transport leaves no wiggle room. 

Exhibition provides a safe place to talk

In the exhibition Kōrero Pono, on in Wellington’s Potocki Paterson Art Gallery until 26 October, the voices of people with lived experience of incarceration are well-matched with either their portraits or artworks alongside quotes from interviews about their life stories.

Jason, one of the subjects in Korero PonoIt’s a brave and provocative exhibition – a safe place to talk about an unsafe story. The people of these stories and artworks talk about the vulnerability and fear they experience either entering prison or returning to society. Organised by national advocacy group JustSpeak, the exhibition aims to provide insights into the collateral consequences of imprisonment on people, whānau and communities.

The exhibition also aims to challenge or change perceptions about New Zealand’s criminal justice system and advocate for a more effective penal system rather than increasing the number of incarcerated people and therefore multiplying  the range of health and behavioural issues they already have.

Here are just three of the quotes that that sit alongside the artworks:

  • “Most of the inmates that I knew or were in there with me had a lot of behavioural problems. Sending them, people like them to jail, I don’t think helps, I think it makes it worse.”
  • “Some people, as soon as they hear the word ‘prison’, and that you’ve been there, that just changes their point of view even if they don’t know why they’ve been there. They think that just because you’ve gone to prison you must be bad, because prison is this bad place.”
  • “The biggest impact of course was the separation of family …”

Connecting with their culture in Mirimiri Te Aroha, Auckland Region Women’s Corrections FacilityIn the story Te Mana Wahine in women’s prisons, I was pleased to read about a new cultural programme operating across the three women’s prisons in New Zealand to connect the women with their cultural identify and support their journey back into the community on release.

Also powerful is Professor Peter O’Connor’s opinion piece on the Newsroom site, advocating for the role of the arts as a rehabilitative tool in prisons. Peter is a member of the Arts in Corrections Northern Network, facilitated by Arts Access Aotearoa.

Peter writes: “All prisoners deserve the right to begin to change their lives while incarcerated, and they deserve the opportunity to have access to high-quality arts programmes to help achieve that.

The September 2018 meeting of the Northern Region Arts in Corrections Network“Critics of the arts often dismiss them as some airy-fairy free-for-all. However, artists know the discipline inherent in any art-making is demanding. It requires the soft skills that employers value such as risk-taking, curiosity, collaboration and team-work, and creativity.

“Perhaps most importantly, the arts remind us of our common humanity. Surely, we want prisoners to leave prison more in touch with the full range of what it is to be human: more hopeful, gentler, kinder and more empathetic …

“There seems to be a change at government level about how we might value more the possibilities of the arts. We need that commitment to the arts in our prisons. We need it to be driven at national level, recognising the arts as a human right that all New Zealanders deserve access to.

“To lock the arts out is to lock out possibility.”


The challenges of re-integration


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