I went to prison this month. I haven’t been before, but I look forward to going again.
Youth Development Officer Anne Hooker created and runs the Penhyn Youth Unit at Port Phillip Prison. Just outside Melbourne, the maximum security complex houses over 800 male inmates. It’s a cold and harshly unimaginative example of industrial architecture that’s built solely to purpose. Thick, high stone walls, electrified razor wire; rigorously unattractive and frankly terrifying – even to we ‘innocent’ leaders and participants on a corporate leadership program. The Youth Unit comprises 35 tiny cells each with a seatless toilet, and narrow bed, a sink and a bookshelf. There are 33 first time offenders – all 18-25 years old – and two older prisoners who are trained prisoner mentors. Primarily set up to reduce the incidence of suicide and self-harm, it has in the 14 years since its inception achieved that goal – and far more – with spectacular success. It’s a place where young men find their identities again, come to understand the reasons behind their journey to incarceration, rebuild self-esteem, learn to live productive, positive lives and even run a business. It’s called Doin’ Time, (also operating as Serving Time) and it’s an inmate-run T-shirt printing business that donates all proceeds – over $150,000 so far – to charity. You can order yours online at www.dointime.org
Anne Hooker is short, with spikey purple hair, Blundstones and smiling eyes. And tough. Uncompromising in her belief that young offenders can be changed by self-knowledge, respect, education and opportunities, she’s continually faced with challenges that don’t have clear solutions. Her ability to empower those in her care to change is the very model of adaptive leadership. Anne told us about a Mum who thanked her for …giving me back my boy after he’d been lost in a self-destructive wilderness of drugs and crime, and another Mum from Qld who’d rung to ask whether she could have her son transferred to Anne’s unit to get him back on track.
Anne had to fight to establish the unit – the first of its kind in the world – and to gain acceptance when it began. Around 60-65% of prisoners in Australian jails have been in prison before. In Hooker’s Youth Unit, the rate of recidivism is 32.5% It’s hard though, to find out very much more about its achievements. A government-commissioned evaluation of the unit entitled The Effectiveness of the Port Phillip Prison Youth Unit 2008, by Assoc Prof (then Dr) Chris Trotter is yet to be released. Privately run prisons and spending on prisoner rehabilitation tend to be political hot potatoes.
One of the prisoners told me his story, spoke with respect of the way Anne and the unit had changed his whole life view, and helped him envision a future where previously he’d felt himself completely worthless. With quiet pride he showed me his tidy cell, and on the bookshelf were five books. Four of them were bibles and the fifth was the account of a prisoner who’d dug inward – to the depths of his tortured soul – and re-created himself to be a valuable, contributing member of free society. Here was a young man addressing his faults and poor decisions, and who was facing the future with gentle optimism. We played table tennis with inmates watching on and cheering us through two tight games. Then he thanked me for visiting, but I felt that I’d gained far more than I’d given.
How do you adapt to challenges that don’t have clear cut solutions?
How would others describe you, based on the way you seem to be?
I’ve been asking myself the same questions.
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