Teachers are ‘thirsting for change’ too, and here’s a start

Correct the language, help the change in our gaols

Andy Tayler

On Sunday, March 20 someone, possibly the Minister for Corrections himself, leaked to The Sunday Telegraph that the John Morony Correctional Centre would be the first prison to face “market testability”. This, we (the electorate) are assured, is the latest way of ensuring that we (the taxpayers) are getting value for the considerable money that is spent on prisons.

When describing the changes to the ABC that same day, Minister David Elliott declared that the reason driving these moves was that “prisons are thirsting for change” — and he’s right, but not the sort of change that he wants to make. For a start, what Mr Elliott is announcing is not change at all but the latest round in a cost-cutting exercise that has been going on for some years now. In fact, they were started around 2008, the better part of a decade ago.

No, the changes for which prisons are thirsting are changes in attitude amongst our politicians. Catching up with our name would be a good start. We are Correctional Centres. I have a nasty feeling that the Minister for Corrections (who wears a lapel badge portraying a set of handcuffs) is just itching to describe my custodial colleagues as “guards” again.

It is interesting to reflect on how language both shapes and mirrors public thinking. The individual locations moved from being gaols to penitentiaries (admittedly more often in the United States and Victoria) to correctional centres many years ago.

The idea was that we no longer viewed the inmate (or, to use Mr Elliott’s parlance, prisoner) as being a poisoned soul for whom nothing could be done and who deserved to be thrown into a dark, dank dungeon or, in serious cases, to be mutilated, executed or both. Rather, the individual became an errant soul who really only needed to find God (hence the penitent) and this remained until around 50 years ago when inmates were recognised as human beings who a court determined should lose their liberty as part of a correctional process.

The relationship that the Europeans have had with their miscreant brethren (and to a lesser extent, sisters) has always been complex. For a start, the first convicts were transported to New South Wales after 18th century prison reformists John Howard (neither the actor nor prime minister) and Jeremy Bentham amongst others had changed attitudes to law-breakers.

Hence, the vast bulk of the approximately 160,000 offenders transported to the various colonies in Australia survived their prison terms and lived successful, productive lives afterwards.

This was in marked contrast to the fate of the convicts sent to the American colonies prior to the American Revolution. Some 50,000 were transported to the Americas prior to 1775 but those poor souls had no education, were not indentured in any way and at the end of the sentence could gain no employment. Since they were never allowed to return home, the wretches were condemned to a miserable, lonely death. They aren’t even recognised in the history books.

The colonies here were required to become self-sufficient as quickly as possible. Whitehall did not want to support them and there were no rich planters to supply taxes for London. It was either train and utilise convict labour to build the new colony or face the wrath of a British electorate that might not want the villains at their doors but was not prepared to see them effectively summarily executed through wanton neglect.

Admiral, and later Governor, Arthur Phillip was ordered to establish the new colony with only the skills that he was carrying on board his ships. This meant he had to increase the number of convicts who could read. All of this led to the first literacy teacher in Australian history being a convict, and he taught convicts. He got started before the fleet even saw Botany Bay.

The public provision of education in gaols has a history that is as long and as proud as the nation itself. I wonder if either the shock jocks or the Minister are aware of that?

Andy Tayler is Secretary of Corrective Services TA and an Education Officer at Long Bay Correctional Centre