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No lived experience: Abolitionist coalition criticise Justice Reform Initiative

Dechlan Brennan -

A coalition of formerly incarcerated women and girls has criticised a report calling for improvements in prisons, arguing it was written by a group of people who had limited lived experience of incarceration.

On Tuesday, the Justice Reform Initiative (JRI) released 'Jailing is failing: The Need for Alternatives to Incarceration in South Australia'. The report highlighted the need for the state's government to fund alternatives to the rising numbers in the state's prison system.

"This report clearly shows that prisons of any kind are harmful, fail to reduce crime or address the drivers behind it, and increase the likelihood of reoffending," Executive Director of JRI, Dr Sotiri said on Tuesday.

JRI reported a 32 per cent increase in incarceration numbers - second only to Queensland - despite a series of measures introduced aimed at reducing recidivism.

"There has been clear commitment to reduce incarceration in South Australia and promote community safety, including acknowledgement of the importance of lowering the disproportionate over-representation of Aboriginal people in custody," Dr Sotiri said.

"But there is much more to be done to address the significant gaps felt by thousands of people leaving prison each year who are not able to access critical community-led services or diversionary supports."

JRI includes amongst its South Australian patrons: 2017 SA Female Elder of the Year and Visiting Inspector of prisons for the Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement (ALRM), Heather Agius, and former Acting Chief Executive of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, Executive Director of the Aboriginal Prisoners and Offenders Support Services Incorporated and National NAIDOC Elder of the Year Award winner, Frank Lampard OAM.

On Thursday, the National Network of Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls (National Network) criticised the report, with founding National Network member Debbie Kilroy calling for funds to stop being wasted.

"Stop kneecapping demands by calling for reforms to the prison system, and let's abolish prisons," she said.

"We must stop wasting funding on new reports highlighting 'new' problems. These problems are not new.

"This country has had a love affair with incarceration for 233 years."

A statement from the National Network said they "object to a report largely written by people who have not been to prison in South Australia" and suggestions the state had taken "positive steps to address the state's failing prison system".

"South Australia's prison system is not unlike any other prison in this country, and in fact ask any woman who has given birth while incarcerated and had their baby removed from them immediately after because South Australia has no mothers and baby's unit, and they will tell you that Adelaide Women's Prison (AWP) is one of the worst women's prisons in this country," the statement said.

"However, this isn't a race to the bottom, because if it was, we'd all lose."

Abolitionist Tabitha Lean said the reports being released by JRI - which have covered most jurisdictions in Australia and called for widespread prison reform from governments - wasn't "new or revolutionary".

The National Network says JRI campaigning around the slogan 'Jailing is Failing' is disingenuous. They especially decry the statement prison is "failing the victims, the 'offenders' and it is failing the community".

"As a National Network, we object to this notion," Ms Lean said.

"We find its analysis lazy and offensive.

"Prisons are working exactly how they are intended, to contain and control certain populations, and they are doing that extremely well."

On Tuesday, it was reported Dr Sotiri said more money should be going to Aboriginal-led community organisations rather than to services run by the Department of Correctional Services, which received the bulk of the funding.

"This report shows there are dozens of community-led alternatives achieving remarkable results in breaking cycles of disadvantage, particularly First Nations-led organisations," she said.

The National Network called for the South Australian government to work towards "full decarceration".

"It is by design that Aboriginal people are incarcerated," Ms Lean said.

"It is by design that this system targets the poor, the disabled, the unwell and the people living on the margins."

The National Network also called on all state and territory governments to cease commissioning reports from people with non-lived experience, labelling them a "gross waste of taxpayers' money".

"Funding these activities only serves to employ more academics and researchers who make money off the backs of our oppressions and does little to emancipate us from the carceral bonds that still hold us."

The Justice Reform Initiative was contacted for comment.

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