The voice of the media

Media. Mass communication.  A powerful vehicle to deliver messages to the masses quickly. Arguably one of the most powerful influences on society, vital in developing societal norms. Second only to the Government, which has the power to dictate media activity, or at least we are led to believe it does.

In the Australian media recently we have seen a few examples of the power of our media outlets. At what point does their quest for quality coverage cross the line? Below are a few productive and not so productive outputs of the media from a social perspective.

Solving crime

Distributing information and images / footage that may lead to a rapid arrest of a criminal or person of interest, enhanced recently through the use of social media by the police.  This is in our favour as we want to ensure a functional society, eradicating anti social behaviour as quickly as possible.

Driving community sanctioned rules which in turn shape Government laws

The media heavily influences public perception of the effectiveness of Government. The new 1:30am lock out and 3am last drinks laws were primarily fuelled by community outcry over the continued hospitalisation and in some cases death of young children, the victims of callous drunken attacks.  Government acted swiftly to pacify the community that ‘something would be done’ – a campaign which the community would never have known about without extensive media coverage.

Education

Media coverage enables us to understand and read about challenges and achievements experienced by members of society beyond our own location.  Its great to hear what may be happening in the world of our domestic and International counterparts and where we can obtain learnings.

At the end of various articles I find it quite useful to see relevant contact points e.g. an article on Cancer call Cancer Council Helpline.  An article relating to mental illness try Lifeline etc.

Driving forward a progressive society focused on marriage equality is another role of the media.

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Wasted resources

There has been that much media coverage on the Corby case the past decade I think we could have educated every Australian on human rights atrocities the world over by now.  Is this of value to us as society? Perhaps as a deterrent, which wouldn’t require a decade of media coverage.  The implications of ‘excessive Corby coverage’ has been far reaching with the Indonesian Government threatening to revoke Corby’s parole and The Australian Federal Police raiding the offices for information on a potential interview deal.

Publicity

Marketers are familiar with the value unpaid media exposure gives their product due to its vast reach and timeliness of message distribution. This in turn has the counter effect of negative publicity which can be damaging to a brand and business.  For example, the recent Qantas redundancy coverage.  Yes Alan Joyce could have made different business decisions earlier and Qantas may be in good shape today but life is full of could have, should have, would have but didn’t.  While some industries experience challenges based on the evolution of society e.g. car manufacturers others experience dramatic growth e.g. technology firms.

Negativity

The vast majority of media articles are negative e.g. about crime, misfortune etc.  How does this impact society? What are the implications of all this negativity? Is it possible to become tunnel visioned? thinking we are living in a crime filled society when in fact the stories we read represent only a small percentage of the activities of Australians.

We recently saw the exposure of the suicide of Charlotte Dawson.  A media personality renowned for a very public battle with depression.  Up until very recently media outlets did not publicise suicides for fear of suicide contagion. I assume this change the past year or so is in aid of mental illness to drive greater awareness and to publish the support services available.

Bias / Credibility

Can journalists disclose ‘the truth’ about anyone who is a major shareholder / owner / sponsor / regulatory authority (e.g. Government) or do they adopt a second set of principles to remain loyal and to keep financial incentives in tact? Are all messages from qualified sources?

Communist societies control messages so as not to distort desired public opinion for example, North Korea.  Is this beneficial to society? Should we be grateful for the freedom of speech we see from our writers today?

What next?

Mass media has a powerful voice – the key is how you use that voice and who determines what messages are most productive for society. Perhaps the answer is better ethics training for all journalists as it appears they are the key determinants for the mass communication received by society which in turn shapes our decisions.

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-03-24/mcdonell-media-frenzy-descends-on-mh370-mystery/5340242

http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/latest-news/new-laws-may-allow-filming-in-nsw-courts/story-fn3dxiwe-1226864315601

Gross World Product vs. Gross National Happiness

I have always argued that corporations and their pursuit of profit is largely damaging to society socially and environmentally. Particularly in light of the recent community support against sledge dumping in the Great Barrier Reef. However without Mark Zuckerberg’s ingenious corporation Facebook would we indeed have been able to galvanise such support as effectively? These three academics discuss their view on the pursuit of economic growth.

  • Dr Chris Dey, Senior Researcher (Physics) at the University of Sydney believes the world’s fundamental physical limits come before economic limits with economic growth ‘the strongest doctorate in society, more so than religion’.
  • Dr Vandana Shiva is an Indian environmental activist that focuses on ‘Gross National Happiness’ as opposed to ‘Gross World Product’.  Dr Shiva questions the popularity of the term GDP and believes it to be more reflective of ‘an abstract number that can destroy everything that is real that sustains us socially and ecologically and it measures everything except that which makes life worthwhile’. Dr Shiva discusses how debt in India is pushing farmers to commit suicide with ‘annihilation of life the consequence of growth…the multiplication of money to mobilise others and not all’.
  • Durkheim argues that contemporary work societies, otherwise now known as market societies focus on organic forms of solidarity which ‘foster a sense of disconnection and alienation’ associated with higher rates of suicide.

However, when you begin to unravel the complexities of the economy you can deduce that corporations do also increase social capital.  It sounds outlandish I know, even for me…

  • Ross Gittins, Senior Economics Editor for the Sydney Morning Herald discussed how reduced consumption can also reduce employment and this in itself creates a dysfunctional society at a recent Sustainability forum.  Obama asks major corporates in the US to create jobs to curb their unemployment rate.
  • For centuries work has been vital in organising millions of people and minimising the impact of anti-social behaviour.  Unilever alone has created jobs for over 200,000 people worldwide.
  • Through creating favourable policies for transnational corporations Singapore was able to increase real income and employment with an increase in public revenues resulting in increased expenditure on health, housing and education (Hobson & Ramesh 2010).  Singaporeans saw the stable global economy that had been constructed critical to increased social capital and the State was favoured by most (Hobson & Ramesh 2010).
  • Galbraith discusses the positive attributes of consumption with many products enabling good health, happiness, social achievement or improved community standing (Galbraith 1972).  Over 95% of households in the UK, Canada, Indonesia and Vietnam use Unilever products each year (Roach 2005).

IMG_1200

Interestingly, at the recent Sustainability Forum by Collaborate Lab on Collaborative Consumption, Air BNB and Garage Sale Trail propose their sustainable business models around reuse and recycling.   It is evident though that the two Managing Directors of both organisations are happy to use the commercial acumen and sound profit making business models acquired from those corporations with which they condemn!

The World Trade Organisation is responsible for determining the rules governing international trade but is renowned for its ‘free trade committment’ (Stilwell 2012).  The State can impose tighter regulations on the market but often its the State that relies on the market in achieving a fully functioning society.  For example, the NSW Government’s re brand to ‘NSW Now, the new State of Business’ with the aim to attract international investment to build the infrastructure required to sustain employment.

The solution could be to impose tighter restrictions on trade  but what about the rules the State places on society like the new 1:30am lock out rule to reduce alcohol fuelled violence? When do we ever follow all the rules imposed on us anyway! Should corporates be expected to as well?

An example of the market overthrowing Government policy was the mining tax proposed in 2010 to curb ‘super profits’, which mining companies retaliated through political advertising resulting in the tax becoming only a modest reform.  In contrast, in 2012, Australia’s Health Minister announced the plain packaging policy to reduce tobacco related issues (SMH 2014).  Large global tobacco companies invested heavily in advertising and other tactics but were unsuccessful in overturning this policy, demonstrating the resilience required by policy makers in serving the best interests of citizens as oppose to corporations.

The challenge is to ‘engineer a new balance between market and society, one that will continue to unleash the creative energies of private entrepreneurship without eroding the social basis of cooperation’ (Guillen 2001). From the detrimental health impacts tobacco firms perpetuate to the life saving medicines developed by pharmaceutical firms,  society has faced challenges for centuries and it seems there is valid place in society for corporations after all.

http://clivehamilton.com/books/growth-fetish/

Tax. “The Budget”. NDIS. No comprende? Mucho importante.

I have avoided trying to understand the complexities of anything finance related my whole life.  I knew taxes existed, I always paid them, I knew they were partly used to subsidise ‘communal’ services and that they went to the Government…but that’s about the extent of my knowledge on tax. Until recently.

I was asked to complete an analysis of the FY14 Commonwealth Budget and boy was I excited!  Not really.  However, in pushing through this riveting piece of work I discovered that I genuinely found it interesting.  I decided to concentrate my analysis on the reform of key welfare initiatives and finished it feeling a lot less mystified and repelled by the notion of tax.

Did you know 35% of our taxes in Australia go toward supporting the welfare of our citizens? New initiatives like the National Disability Insurance scheme which will see a $20.3b investment over 7 years, will sure go a long way to providing much needed support to people with disability.  People with disability is a phrase that describes the 460,000 Australians who are less able than most as well as family, friends, carers or organisations that actively support them (Budget 13-14 2013 NDIS Policy).  The scheme will see increased supports so that people with disability can exercise more choice and control over their lives and achieve their full potential.  This in turn maximises the potential of the support networks of those with disability by broadening the support available to them.

Commonwealth Budget 13-14

I was recently privileged to hear Sally Richards (Australian disability advocate) speak at the International People with Disability Day.  One of Sally’s four sons was born severely intellectually disabled with her husband taking his own life a few years ago, unable to cope with the added pressure while battling mental illness.  I was truly moved by Sally’s story and her commitment to ensuring that people with disability are able to make a valid contribution in society.  Sally’s amazing courage, determination and sacrifice have led her son to now live in his own townhouse, with a carer, and work part time delivering mail.  Sally believes the NDIS is just one more step in fostering better access and inclusion for people with disability, which then has the flow on effect of supporting carers and family members in maximising their potential too.

For Australians not living with disability the increase in Medicare levy from 1.5%-2% of taxable income may not be welcomed, although this is an incremental investment compared to the $20.3 billion forecast to be generated for people with disability as a result of the increase in Medicare levy. We will all be touched by disability at some point in our lives, whether we obtain a disability or know someone who requires assistance.  DisabilityCare Australia will also incorporate the National Injury Insurance Scheme (NIIS), ensuring those who are affected by a ‘catastrophic’ injury can receive supports on a no-fault basis with reduced litigation and greater access to care required (Budget 13-14 2013 NDIS Policy).

http://everyaustraliancounts.com.au

Policymakers and Treasury aim to strike a balance between the State’s economic priorities and social outcomes through varying the investment allocated to certain initiatives every financial year. The key initiatives across welfare reform demonstrate a focus on research for informed policy making, inflation adjustments and labour force participation incentives to drive increased spending.  Effective budget allocation ensures resources are allocated to increase social capital through reducing the costs of anti-social behaviour and driving social cohesion for a fully functioning society which results in a strong economy (Cox 1995).

When a hero comes along…

Nelson has no doubt proved to have touched the lives of millions.  Evident across social media the past few weeks were his inspirational quotes that have moved many of us.

mandela_10

Who is this ambassador for peace?

In summary, Nelson was South Africa’s first black president (is black PC?), was instrumental in significantly reducing apartheid (entrenched racism) and was jailed for 27 years for doing so.

Nelson was not alone in his quest for us to treat each other with the respect and kindness we deserve. Martin Luther King’s dream was for ‘people to be judged by the content of their character not the colour of their skin’. As the Dalai Lama quotes we are all the same, we are one, we are humanity.

Nelson or ‘Madiba’ (the father) as he was known to many…showed the world that you can stand up for what you believe is right.  Despite the harsh penalties for attempting to overthrow the policies of the South African Government decades ago Nelson fought for the rights of his fellow Africans.  According to the Nelson Mandela foundation he ‘supports conflict resolution, poverty reduction and increased public health’.

The rejection of a class based society

If anyone has seen ‘The Help‘ you probably have experienced at least on film the abhorrent treatment of African Americans in the US as slaves in the 1970s.  I was shocked after seeing this film and couldn’t believe there were people out there who could treat fellow humans this way.

KKK? Are these people kidding themselves? They dress like children who have been stuck in a room with their bedsheet and a pair of scissors. While membership over the past few decades has significantly declined (~6m to 6K) its unfathomable people could put that much energy into opposing those of a different skin colour.

The ‘Enlightenment’ or ‘Age of Reason’ in the 17th and 18th C created a significant rejection of class based society.  The emphasis became on reason rather than tradition. Power inequalities started to fade however money still continues to play a central role in status today.

I recall a trip to Hobart where the anglo-saxon cab driver started whinging about an influx of Sudanese immigrants settling there, and that Hobart had the highest per capita anglo saxon population than any other place in the world (at 98%).  I’m half Croatian and most of my friends have one or both parents born outside Australia and even grandparents.

Why is it many Australians shun migrants from less developed nations, war torn countries or countries with varying religious beliefs yet we have no issue wanting to obtain visas to migrate to the UK or the US etc? (or live there illegally…illegal immigrants?)

We are living in a global world where globalisation has reduced the barriers to live in other nations.  We must remember this next time we assume someone is going to ‘take our jobs’ or ‘overrun our country’ that almost every one of us has lived overseas or know someone close to us who does.

I always get confused when people refer to those of oriental descent as ‘asians’.  As if they are a collective group of people that all act in exactly the same way.  I am caucASIAN and I’m a menace behind the wheel too!

How can we be heroes?

In an earlier post I talked about ‘standing up or sitting back’ – since then I’ve been shunned and ripped off by three homeless people after trying to buy them a cupcake, a coffee and a big issue.  Good intentions aren’t always received as envisaged, but I’m sure they appreciated the gesture and I brightened their day.

I registered to volunteer with the Rural Fire Service to help the catering unit, which I then had to defer as working full time and studying part time it wasn’t going to be humanly possible. I will volunteer when Uni finishes and found a way to act rather than to simply have empathy toward victims.

One of the easiest things any of us can do in this life is sit by and absorb information… Its up to us what we choose to do with that information, hence the theory that actions speak louder than words.  As Ghandi says ‘be the change you want to see in the world’.

I highly recommend the new Mandela film – it is truly inspiring to see how a visionary like Mandela can defy social norms and eliminate anti-social behaviour, like racism, through courage, determination and sacrifice.

Loves of our lives

Inspired by Hanna Rosin’s debate on ‘The end of men’ at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas that was focused on the changing role of women in society. Her discussion on ‘the hook up culture’ was of particular interest so I have completed a brief comparison on relationships a few decades ago and those we see now.

Rewind back to our grandparents era…(Early-mid 1900’s)

Most men and women claimed to be straight (or didn’t have the courage to defy social norms?), sex before marriage was not commonplace, you often dated only 1 or 2 people before marrying and in many instances married quickly.  Both my grandparents were married for 50 years+

Fast forward to today

A variety of relationships exist in society: straight, gay, bi, transgender, de facto as well as numerous options to conceive and nurture children through IVF, surrogacy, adoption, foster care. Abortion rates are increasing (in Australia this is high at 70K p.a.) and divorce rates have been on the increase for a while.

divorcechildren

An interesting transition that could explain relationships over time is through the integration of science and education. Education has created technology which has created more educated people through accessibility, ubiquity and real time answers to questions (where would we be without Google!).

As people become more educated they realise they don’t need to rely or ‘follow’ a popular life journey. In the developed world at least it seems obvious this typically involves… school, work full time, get married by 30, buy a house, have children by 40 and the rest is history.  This is a common pattern and certainly one that I have seen develop with numerous friends getting engaged by the age of 29 to then be married by 30.  Is it a race to the popular life journey finish line? I’m not sure but seems coincidental at least.  Perhaps the biological clock plays a role but with all of the technological advances that have created options above to conceive / nurture children it seems the biological clock isn’t as crucial as once thought.

 Changing patterns of relationships

There is a culture out there (tinder users you know who you are!) where people are quite happy to ‘hook up’ and move on to the next person they choose.  No strings attached.  No hanging out.   The freedom to choose what you want when you want and meet a whole heap of interesting (and probably not so interesting people) along the way.  Perhaps also a valid mechanism for the busy, not so social or shy people out there who are looking for their other half.  News.com.au recently reported that ‘The average female now has eight partners during her lifetime, up from four in the 1990s – and catching up with men, whose average is 12….’.

In last week’s Sunday Life one of the articles I read was by a lady who after ‘years of child rearing, is now smugly single‘.  Dianne Blacklock notes that by 2020 the number of single person households is expected to increase by reaching 16%.  A very interesting read as she discusses her requests by people to rationalise her relationship status.

“Apparently I have a problem. You see, years after getting divorced, I’m still single, and I’m not actively doing anything about it. I am told, repeatedly, that I’m supposed to be putting myself “out there”. Out where? Where is this mythical place? And why is everyone so insistent that I “put” myself there?”

This lonely london lady is so keen on finding a boyfriend she has set up lost boyfriend posters!

Disbanding the ‘nuclear family’

While Australia is a wage earner welfare state focused on the assumption that most members of society form a ‘nuclear family’ with a male breadwinner, stay at home wife and 2.5 children.  (How can you have half a child anyway???).  Clearly this needs some revising as women are starting to combine the roles of caregiver and career woman – igniting their intellect and reclaiming their role as equal to men with 45% of women now comprising the workforce. (Ungerson) 31% of women versus 17% of men will require care in institutions as women are considered to be overworked due to the two roles.

Hanna Rosin states that the income of women is increasing while our male counterparts is decreasing.  This could be due to our prior ‘underdog’ status and therefore increased ability to adapt or ‘hustle’ as Hanna calls it and change.  Did you know that for every 3 degrees women earn men earn 2?  We can even see the role of women changing by watching sitcom episodes in the 70s compared to now. Domestic violence is decreasing with divorce increasing partly due to women now being less financially dependent on men. Women are what could now be considered the apple computers of humanity as Hanna eloquently put it!

It’s clear that society will evolve how society wants to evolve and policies developed by the State particularly those relating to the Market need to be progressive.  For example, policies relating to work, corporations, child rearing, relationships, welfare benefits, marriage laws (including gay marriage) and support services.  Policymakers should have concepts in mind like Hanna’s description of women, with their ability to ‘adapt and change’.

http://news.com.au/money/investing/the-perfect-time-to-start-a-family/story-e6frfmdr-1226757189749

http://www.businessinsider.com.au/nate-bagleys-best-relationship-advice-2014-2

A chemically altered consciousness

Drugs.   Chemical cocktails for the mind and body.  Defined by Google as ‘a medicine or other substance which has a physiological effect when ingested or otherwise introduced into the body.’

I recently attended Peter Hitchens ‘There is no war on drugs’ debate at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas.  A campaign Peter appears committed to after experiencing the fall out of cannabis use by a friend’s son.  It could be argued, that illicit drugs are taken to temporarily (or permanently in the case of addiction) detach oneself from reality and one’s current state of consciousness.

I think his debate was largely unqualified and walked out when he started questioning the validity of prescription drugs…Thousands of life saving drugs have been developed over the past few centuries to improve the quality of life of those who are ill (mentally or physically). However, no academically awarded medical practitioner has scientifically concluded that the benefits of taking illicit drugs outweigh the costs to either yourself or others.

You can tell the difference when an academic presents compared to a journalist.  I’m still unsure if Mr Hitchens has tried illicit drugs? His address still sparked a debate internally about the social fallout of illicit drug consumption, which cannot be denied. Social in the context of ‘partying’ perhaps but not so social in the context of violence, crime, addiction, deteriorating health and poverty.

http://www.nationaldrugstrategy.gov.au/internet/drugstrategy/publishing.nsf/Content/national-drug-strategic-framework-lp

2010 Household Drug Survey

*Australian Institute of Health & Welfare

  • Recent illicit drug use (use in the previous 12 months) rose from 13.4% of the population aged 14 and over in 2007 to 14.7% in 2010. This was still below the 1995 peak of 16.7%.
  • The rise was mainly due to an increase in the proportion of people who had used cannabis (from 9.1% to 10.3%), pharmaceuticals for non-medical purposes (3.7% to 4.2%), cocaine (1.6% to 2.1%) and hallucinogens (0.6% to 1.4%).
  • Recent illicit drug use was highest in the 20–29 year age group for both males and females (30.5% and 24.3%, respectively).
    However, recent ecstasy use decreased, and there was no change in the use of meth/amphetamines, heroin, ketamine, GHB, inhalants and injecting drug use.
  • Between 2007 and 2010, ecstasy and meth/amphetamines were perceived to be less readily available, with less opportunity to use, but cocaine, hallucinogens, pain-killers/analgesics (both prescription and over-the-counter) and tranquilisers/sleeping pills for non-medical purposes were perceived to be more readily available.
  • Of all illicit drugs, community tolerance has increased for cannabis use, while people in Australia still consider heroin to be the drug most associated with a drug problem.

Important actors

While I don’t envisage solving the ‘war on drugs’ (illicit) in the next few paragraphs, I will share some brief views:

Justice system – Why is it that many of us turn a blind eye to cocaine abuse by a wealthy office worker and yet we shun those who live in poverty and smoke marijuana?  Equal opportunities for incarceration and condemnation for use and possession must be enforced.  I struggle to understand how hubs like Kings Cross exist when everyone knows what goes on behind many of the closed doors… A power struggle between the justice system and king pins? Perhaps.  Which may reduce through harsher deterrents for criminals but also greater support for law enforcement officers.

Education – many attendees of this address thought earlier education and more of it would reduce illicit drug consumption.  However, if my experiences and the experiences of those I have met in my time are anything to go by its not so much a deterrent.  As Peter discusses, peer pressure and that desire to play with fire and experience the unknown play a key role.  It can’t hurt of course, and certainly the recent ‘Ice Age Campaign‘ has provided some great shock tactics.

I wonder whether a different tack could be for education providers to simply:

  1. Emphasise how many great things in the world ignite the senses like travel http://www.escapenormal.com/2012/06/23/the-100-most-beautiful-places-in-the-world-in-pictures/
  2. Remind us all of how ‘free and easy’ we have it these days (as my 94 year old grandfather says) and that we should be thankful for our good health and opportunity. http://www.boredpanda.com/must-see-powerful-photos/

Policy makers – ensure that appropriate consultation occurs with anti social citizens to understand the core drivers for illicit drug consumption so that appropriate systems are in place to combat it.  Perhaps:

  • More community engagement events and campaigns that foster important values – we all know how much sport unites us as Australians and Australia Day, Christmas etc.
  • Online service delivery for anxiety and depression to target those who may be at risk for starting on an illicit drug journey at the expense of seeking professional help – www.mindspot.org.au is a fantastic example.
  • And the list goes on…

All of us –  focus on constructing a more favoured reality which includes laughter, confidence, creativity and relaxation to fuel a less anti social society.

Notwithstanding there may be a genuine need to escape the current place one finds themselves (e.g. returning from war, divorce, dealing with grief/loss etc).  In this instance perhaps we can make mental health services more accessible and less stigmatised so people don’t feel compelled to commence their ‘illicit drug journey’.

Philosophically speaking…

One attendee at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas even raised the fact that you are more likely to be hit by a car than negatively impacted by drugs…A reference would have been handy.  Assuming he was correct, perhaps the social fallout from illicit drug use is what it is and is another facet of the world around us?  Survival of the fittest?

http://www.news.com.au/national/more-australian-teenagers-are-choosing-not-to-drink-and-smoke-according-to-a-major-new-report/story-fncynjr2-1226991404242

http://dealproject.org.au

http://www.au.timeout.com/sydney/aroundtown/events/38675/block-party-at-the-barracks

http://www.news.com.au/entertainment/celebrity-life/philip-seymour-hoffman-bought-heroin-and-cocaine-from-two-dealers-in-final-drugs-score/story-fn907478-1226818084612

http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/nation/policeman-who-shot-ryan-pringle-thought-colleague-hit-by-crossbow/story-e6frg6nf-1226769686407

http://news.com.au/entertainment/celebrity-life/nigella-lawson-testifies-in-court-at-fraud-trial-of-former-personal-assistants/story-fn907478-1226775464512

http://www.aihw.gov.au/publication-detail/?id=60129544486&tab=2

http://news.nationalpost.com/2012/12/28/canada-approves-use-of-ecstasy-in-study-into-post-traumatic-stress-disorder/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blow_(film)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Limitless

A prisoner for life?

I had the privilege of attending one of the most explosive debates on recidivism and the reintegration of convicted criminals back into society at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas last weekend. When I first read that a double convicted murderer, Erwin James, was coming to Australia to speak I wondered what it would be like to hear his experience of 20 years behind bars for taking the lives of two men.

When he walked on stage and began speaking, I could see remorse ingrained in his face which was permanently furrowed, he never smiled and spoke softly and slowly. I didn’t know how I was going to feel about his views and whether I would agree…whether he deserved the treatment he got in prison and again on release…by the end of the discussion I had some respect (for a murderer?) for his struggle and for his views on recidivism.

Erwin James’ life became troubled at age 10 when his mother was killed in a car accident. His father, unable to cope, became an alcoholic and was abusive toward Erwin, at one stage pushing his head into the fire for smiling.  Erwin was convicted of burglary at age 10 after stealing from a sweet shop…he then left home to sleep on the streets, unable to handle his father’s rage.  He was moved into a boys home where he fast learned the tricks of the trade leading him on a downward spiral and a life on the streets filled with crime.  He by no means was justifying his crimes but painted the picture of a troubled childhood which played a role in his perception of right and wrong.

He didn’t talk much about his crimes, understandably, but wanted to focus on ‘life on the inside’ and whether society wanted criminals to be able to effectively reintegrate into society upon release.

Erwin suggested that if prisoners are in there forever we don’t need to pay as much attention to recidivism but the fact is many prisoners are released and the chances of reoffending are high, at least 60% in the UK,  50% in Australia.

He described prison as a place where you ‘live inside your head’, initially he was in a cell for 23hrs a day.  It was here he would try and work out why he did what he did. The prison psychologist helped him understand that all people are born loveable and aren’t inherently bad people…and so he began to untangle his dysfunctions.  He recalls seeing a photo of himself as a young boy with a cowboy hat on and wondered where it all went wrong.

It was a long and difficult 20 years with many prisoners taking their own life (1247 he recalls in great detail) ‘a place of fear where people were struggling’.  He was moved to a longer term maximum security prison and was able to then use workshops, the chapel, a gym and saw more possibilities.  He joined an English class which was important to be able to exercise his mind again.

Prison was a land of hierarchy and unwritten rules with someone being stabbed every other week.  He experienced a major riot and a siege but he hung on to hope and books.  The prison psychologist told him that he owes it to his victims to ‘do the best you can in here’.

He became known as ‘the guy who could write a good letter’ and started writing letters for other inmates to lawyers, family, complaints for people.  He started to feel good that he was able to contribute to a community and knew that if he ever got out he would want to make a positive contribution to society.  He saw writing as an enabler, allowing him to find a way to live again and walk the middle line between his past and future. He was chronically inhibited in prison and needed to feel secure again.

He was asked to write for the Guardian Newspaper a column on ‘life inside’.  This was an opportunity for Erwin to apply himself and have a second chance at life and is where he has been employed since.

Prison as a deterrent

Naturally, the question was raised that conditions in prison should be tough so its a deterrent to those choosing to commit crimes.  Erwin explained that he absolutely agrees that prison shouldn’t be a playground but that ultimately these people are going to be released and if we don’t want them continuing to harm members of society upon release they need to live in a way that is not going to impact their actions upon release.  ‘Prison crushes you, undermines, erodes and corrodes you and dismantles your humanity’.  You may get released but the debt you owe the victims and their families even after 20 years inside will never be repaid, and having that on your conscience is a true life sentence.

Early intervention

The question was raised around Erwin’s troubled childhood and it was agreed that early intervention from social services and the right education and support is key to ensuring criminality doesn’t result.

Victims and their families

Erwin at no point felt that his crimes should be excused, he raised some interesting views on what next after serving your time… A criminal record will always stay with him and even minimised his chances of getting a visa to come to Australia to speak.  However he just tries to ‘do the best he can’ with what time he has left on the outside.  Inside he hoped that he would live to see just one more sunny day…

Can people change? Can we forgive?

In Norway there is a prison called Bastoy that sees only 16% of its inmates reoffending upon release.  However, it is argued that Norway with its relatively small population, egalitarian nature and high quality of life within the community play a role.  Its here prisoners are given responsibility, for example through farming on site.
http://www.theguardian.com/society/2013/sep/04/bastoy-norwegian-prison-works

Hearing first hand from a convicted criminal was enlightening.  It changed my perspective on our prison system.  Ultimately there are some criminals that will continue to reoffend and cause major harm in the community and shouldn’t be released and Erwin acknowledges this.  Conversely, there are many people imprisoned that commit fraud and other smaller crimes that probably don’t deserve to live in such circumstances and can be rehabilitated and deterred in different ways. However, there are others that will be released and upon spending sometimes decades in a hardened prison won’t be able to function in society as we know it.

People are people ultimately and its up to society as to whether they want to keep prisoners in there for life, or even capital punishment like in the US, but the fact remains many prisoners are currently released so its up to us to decide how they are treated in prison to reduce recidivism.

http://books.google.com.au/books/about/A_life_inside.html?id=SZIbAQAAMAAJ&redir_esc=y

http://news.com.au/national/thomas-kelly-killer-kieran-loveridge-gets-four-years-jail/story-fncynjr2-1226755733724n

http://news.com.au/lifestyle/real-life/my-conversations-with-a-coldblooded-killer/story-fnixwvgh-1226758834186

http://news.com.au/lifestyle/real-life/derrick-deacon-explains-what-freedom-feels-like-after-25-years/story-fnixwvgh-1226766427689

http://news.com.au/lifestyle/relationships/simon-gittanys-new-life-in-jail-and-what-his-girlfriend-will-see-of-him/story-fnet09p2-1226770560480