By Conor Duffy Posted Fri Jun 29, 2007
Indigenous Australians make up just 2 per cent of the general Australian population, but 25 per cent of the prison population. In Canada they used to have similar figures, but 20 years ago Canadians began trying to change this by creating indigenous-run prisons.
Indigenous Canadian prison inmates at the Stan Daniels Healing Centre pray in their native languages. (ABC TV)
The lodge for Indigenous Canadian prison inmates outside the Stan Daniels Healing Centre. (ABC TV)
The Stan Daniels Healing Centre in Edmonton, Alberta, is where native Canadian inmates go to serve the last six months of their sentence.
The aim is to get them to reconnect with their culture, and the results are extremely impressive.
The centre is about redemption. It is a place where damaged men try to heal and redeem themselves before they are released back into the world.
Many of them have known violence and sexual abuse since they were small children and some now inflict it on their own kids.
Clare Carefoot runs the prison. A veteran of the Canadian justice system, she served on the parole board for a number of years.
She has helped come up with what is called the "warrior program", where inmates are forced to confront the violence of their past and work toward their futures.
"This is a wonderful place, I'm very passionate about this and I'm very passionate about aboriginal people," she said.
"I see the difference in these guys, I really see the difference, particularly when they take the warrior program and the pipe ceremonies and working with the elder and I can see the difference in them.
"I'd say to Australian correctional people 'please get to the root of your problem and try and get an activity like this going'."
The centre is about using culture and tradition to achieve better outcomes in the criminal justice system.
One of the activities involves four days of feasting and fasting on the nearby rocky mountains. Connecting with nature and rediscovering the spirit is also a part of it.
Another passionate advocate of the warrior program is a man called Freddie.
He is a member of the Canadian equivalent of the Stolen Generations and spent 50 years of his life in jail.
"When I first went in I was 19 years old, back in 1959, and I kind of looked up to all these tough guys and I started doing all of these things they were doing when I was young like that and eventually I ended up being one of those tough guys that I wanted to be," he said.
"I had that reputation right and I just got caught up in all that stuff inside prison.
"I've been fighting all my life, pretty well, fighting the system and I ended up taking a guy's life down east there in Dorchester, the guy pulled a knife on me and that's where I picked up my life sentence.
"That was in 1974, at that time when I was living a violent life, I was taking a lot of drugs."
Freddie went through the warrior program three years ago. He credits getting back in touch with indigenous culture for helping him end his life of crime.
"I had to go back to my childhood, where it had all started from and mine, I guess it started when I was about six or seven years old," he said.
"Not knowing who my dad was, my mum wasn't there, grandfather really strict on me, and I was sexually abused one time when I was nine years old and I kept all that inside and when I got a little older going into prison, I was just an angry person."
Now he tries to stop younger men from repeating the same mistakes.
One of those men is Lyall Cardinall, a giant of a man, who has six children and has been in jail for almost two years for a series of violent offences.
"I did a lot of violence, a lot of fighting and I got charged for assault of my ex-girlfriend a few times actually and I was very violent, I used to blame my parents for that," he said.
"I'm not proud of myself for what I did. My oldest boy and my daughter... right now I'm working on myself because they're scared of me and I was very violent. I brought violence home and I admit I was a very terrible father."
Cardinall says he hated the warrior program at first because it made him confront painful events in his past and look at his own shortcomings.
But he says he is now confident of starting his life over when he is released from prison.
"This program, it helped me to understand myself and to understand my feelings and to talk about them," he said.
"It gave me courage and strength and it really opened my eyes."
Cardinall does not get out of jail until December so it remains to be seen if he can end the pattern of violent behaviour that has so far marred his life.
But most of the men who complete the warrior program do stay out of prison.
The elders who run this program say that about 80 per cent of the men who complete it never reoffend.
It has impressed the head of Corrections in Australia's Northern Territory, Jens Tolstrup, who says that one in two of his prisoners end up back in jail within five years of their release.
"I think it's a great idea, I've known the idea for some years, they've been running the idea for 11 years and I think it's a great thing," he said.
Mr Tolstrup believes recidivism rates for Australian Aborigines could be improved if a jail similar to the Stan Daniels Healing Centre was opened here.
The link between identity, culture and better criminal justice outcomes has been proven around the world, but to make it happen in the NT, Mr Tolstrup needs more money.
Successive Canadian governments have invested the necessary cash over the last 20 years. The will to act and to spend in Australia has seemingly been lacking.
With the current focus on the NT and ending crime in remote communities, there may never be a better time to turn that around and help keep another generation of Aborigines out of prison.