Breaking out

By Peter Bini

I have just completed a three year term at Mobilong prison in South Australia. While there, I began acting as an advocate for prisoners because the guys didn't know how to talk to management. If I saw something that was going wrong for one of the guys I'd go up to management and say "Listen, I don't think this is very fair".

Back in 1994 a man who came into the prison to run maths and English courses said to me "there's a guy on the outside I'd like you to meet". He was referring to Bonnie Gibson from the Mount Barker men's group. I spoke to Bonnie and he told me about the men's groups he runs on the outside, and I said "how about one in here". It took a while to convince management, and the inmates and the screws to allow us to have a men's group. The screws were very worried about the idea because they don't like blokes taking control of themselves. We finally kicked off in September 1994. It's still going today.

When I was released, I realised the group needs a facilitator to keep it together. So I am still going back once a week to facilitate the group. It's something the blokes look forward to - it's good that someone's coming in who's concerned about them.

I've also been going into Yatala, F division, the maximum security prison, to facilitate a group there every Friday evening. I started this while I was still a prisoner. There was an agreement that I'd be paid for facilitating that group, but someone high up said "we can't pay a prisoner" so I wasn't paid. Now that I'm released I hope to sort that out. The blokes in Yatala were quite receptive to having a men's group, which is mainly because a few of the blokes know me as an inmate and they trust me. They can't say to me "you don't know what it's like in here".

These groups have meant a lot to the men. It's a place they can go and offload whatever they want without it going on their record, without it ending up on some social worker's file, and without getting into trouble with the officers. It helps break down the communication barrier between officers and inmates. It also improves the inmate to inmate relationship. I'm a firm believer that a lot of men's anger is a symptom of their own pain. Recognising their own pain and getting it off their chest brings about amazing changes. I've had a man tell me "all I ever wanted was for my father to tell me he loves me". When I told him that that was his father's failing, not his, I saw the relief run through him. These men bring out stuff that happened when they were little boys, that they have not acknowledged for 20 or 30 years.

One of the men in my group in Yatala had been jailed for 5 years when he was 18 for robbing banks. He got out, got a job and a wife and a son, then lost his job and went back to robbery, and now he's doing another 5 years. After coming to the group a couple of times, he told me he was sitting in his cell and suddenly a light came on in his head and he said "what the fuck am I doing here?". When men come into jail they start off saying "fuck you, fuck the world, fuck everybody" but after about 9 months we are saying "fuck me" and we're ready to start looking at where we're going, if we're given the chance.

For almost every man in the group, this is the first time they've been able to talk about their lives. It's the first time they've experienced intelligent conversation. It makes them respect each other and themselves. Blokes will not tell social workers about their past, or about intimate details. They will tell their mates in the safety of a group. Once one man starts opening up another will feel it's okay to reveal themselves too. It becomes like a rollercoaster; once it starts moving they all jump on. Outside the group, the men's conditioning tells them it's not manly to talk about their problems.

I've been in and out of prison since 1977; I am 40 now. There has been no rehabilitation happening in the prison system. Rehabilitation can't happen without men understanding where they've come from. I didn't confront my past until Bonnie came along three years ago. His group certainly changed my life. If it hadn't happened, I'd still be in my own dream world; against the world.

There are about 12 men in the Yatala men's group, out of a total of 160 inmates. No one is forced to come to the group. Some of the blokes will ask me what it's about, and I tell them to come along and check it out, that they don't need to do anything if they don't want to. We start the group with a sharing time, then we discuss a topic like violence, or life in prison, how to get on with the officers, and so on. During the sharing time when one of the guys is downloading, I see so many guys nodding their heads, saying "yeah, that's how it is for me too". They realise they're not on their own.

I've been talking to management about organising seminars for the officers. So far I've been focussed on helping the inmates improve their communications and help them change, but it's important that at the same time we educate the staff. It's all very well for the inmates to be willing to relate to the officers on a more human level, but if the officer has an antagonistic attitude, it doesn't help. The manager supports the idea and we're seeing how it can be done.

I believe it's not good enough just to have a few groups here and there; there's got to be one in every prison.

When I was released my relationship with my woman fell apart and we are now separated. We had become used to the way we related when I was in prison, and the adjustment to the new situation was just too hard and too sudden. We need to realise how big this change is and that most relationships are going to suffer incredibly unless the couple has some preparation for the shock. There needs to be counselling and training for couples, starting a year or more before release.

I'm liaising with men's groups in the community so that when a bloke does get out, he can continue going to a group for support wherever he's living.

There are three guys from the Mobilong group who have been released. They are now going to groups in Mt Barker or Byron Place. The management of Yatla asked me "what's your success rate?" and I told them that these first three "graduates" who have been out for over a year now were previously going in and out of prison. So far the success rate is 100%.

I'd like to see these groups set up in every state. The prison management and Correctional Services are very supportive of what I'm doing, although the officers still find it very threatening. The screws like to play mind games, to maintain their power. They don't like the inmates taking control of themselves.

When I was released, one of the screws said to me "this will be over soon won't it", meaning the group. I said, "No mate, this is here to stay".

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