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The time I went to prison: in praise of South Australia's Grannies Group

Speeches in Parliament
Penny Wright 8 Jul 2014

A couple of months ago I went to prison. I did end up leaving prison on the same day but I do want to go back and I am wondering if that makes me a recidivist! I visited Mobilong Prison at Murray Bridge in South Australia and I did so in the company of a remarkable group of strong and caring women. Tonight I would like to share what was a very moving experience.


I visited Mobilong with the Aboriginal Elders Visiting Program, who are known affectionately as 'the grannies group'. There are 12 grannies in Adelaide who now visit prisoners in the Adelaide Women's Prison and at Murray Bridge, and they are about to start visiting the Adelaide Remand Centre. There are also seven grannies who visit Aboriginal prisoners in Port Augusta.

The program has been ongoing for some time, but they have only been visiting formally in a structured way for about eight months. The grannies group itself was established in 1999. It was a group of Aboriginal women who came together to discuss their experiences as mothers and grandmothers who had family members exiting prison. They all had kids or grandkids who had either been drug users or been in trouble with the law in some way.

They came together to support each other. They got some help from the government with a couple of meetings and a forum, but they decided to keep meeting regularly to support each other and the wider community in South Australia. One of their aims was to foster support for a community based approach to drug issues and to reduce the number of drug related deaths occurring in their networks. They still meet fortnightly to catch up and support each other, and where they meet is also a place for people who have been newly released from prison to come along and get some support. Since those early days, the grannies group has become an absolute force to be reckoned with, and I think if you asked people in the South Australian Department for Correctional Services they would agree with that.

After some years, this group began to reach out to young Aboriginal people who were in youth detention, with the understanding that these young people often felt isolated, marginalised and very much unconnected to those sustaining factors in their lives like family and kinship-and the visiting program has grown from that. The women came up with the idea of visiting prisons regularly to provide that touch of humanity and home to their kin and to other people's kin who were isolated and lonely. They have developed what I think is probably a unique prison visiting program in Australia, and it has indeed been supported over time by the South Australian Department for Correctional Services.

And so it was that I invited myself along and got to visit Mobilong Prison with these wonderful women. I was able to witness how their combination of love and uncompromising, unflinching strength offers hope and support to some of the most marginalised members of their community. The prison officials greeted us and briefed us, and among them was Mr Richard King, the Director of the Aboriginal Service Unit, who has been very supportive of the program. While the officers were being very polite to me as a visiting senator and doing some briefing, I could see that the women, who are in their 50s, 60s and 70s-older women-were impatient to get on with it, to get out to meet those young men who had come to rely on their visits, who were eager to meet them and who needed them. So we made our way to a healing circle. It was a lovely day, a sunny winter's day, at Murray Bridge, and so we were able to sit outside. We sat in a special area that had been developed with circular seats. I noticed that in the middle of it was a lovely little garden area. I found out that indeed at one point this small garden area had been rocks and rubble but that one of the young prisoners had taken it upon himself to create a garden there. It was a lovely environment to sit. Then I witnessed the prisoners, the young men, coming out. They had been waiting near the fence for these older women to turn up. It did not take long before they came over. They were hanging over the women, hugging them, kissing them, touching their arms and sitting next to them. Some of the women had relations such as grandsons or nephews in the prison at that time and some of the women were also, I suppose, proxy grandparents, mothers and aunties. It struck me just how important that human contact, that human touch, was. I understand that originally it had been a 'no-no', but one of the women, Heather Agius, had been very clear and very firm with the prison authorities: if she was going to come along and do this she would do it on her terms. It was an Aboriginal way to have that connection-and, indeed, she won the day and they allowed that to happen. What I witnessed was a group of young-to-middle aged men opening up and sharing their stories with these caring women. I understand that in the early days these men were very reticent to speak; there was not a lot of speaking going on. But clearly what I saw was a need to communicate and speak and, by the same token, these older women were very clear and very strong in encouraging the men to understand what had brought them to prison, how they could be strong men for their families and their partners who were outside the prison and where they could move to from there. I saw that over time the men had opened up and trusted these older women and that the older women had legitimacy and authority, which meant that they could give strong, caring, loving advice that would be taken on board by the men. I also saw that there had been a violence prevention program, which had become increasingly culturally appropriate and which the men were benefiting from; they were learning to open up.

What I really saw was that absolute need for people to have an opportunity to leave prison and to be able to make something of their lives again, to have that sense that they are valuable and worthwhile, that they matter and that they have not been forgotten while they were in prison-and that is certainly what the grannies group offered to these young men. While I was there, they took the opportunity to tell me about what they needed when they left prison-and none of it is brain science. It is clearly an obvious need that people would have on leaving prison: they need to have accommodation; they need to have assistance to find employment. They were hungry to work, especially having found to some extent some self-respect through the programs they were doing and from the feedback they were getting from the grannies. They wanted to go out and work and contribute. They also needed assistance with drug and alcohol rehabilitation. It was clear to me that, if they were not given those supports, it would be very difficult for them to make that transition.

I will echo their needs. I will go out and speak to the South Australian government and reiterate what it is that people need to support them if they are going to make a good transition from prison to community. I would also like to say what respect and admiration I have for those loving, affectionate, strong women who regularly make that visit. I know that, if they were not to turn up, the men would be absolutely bereft. I believe it is an idea and a program that could be trialled in other parts of Australia. 

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