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“I am always going to be an ex-prisoner.”

Aug 10, 2020 • 16m 01s

As calls for police reform and prison abolition grow across the world, a new campaign in Australia led by formerly incarcerated women is seeking to combat the stigma of criminalisation. Today, Tabitha Lean, one of the organisers of that campaign, on life after prison.

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“I am always going to be an ex-prisoner.”

283 • Aug 10, 2020

“I am always going to be an ex-prisoner.”

TABITHA:

The day I walked out of those prison gates, I became an abolitionist. My focus became very strongly advocating for every single body that is criminalized in this country.

Because like I think we're at this kind of crucible moment in this country's history. We're seeing a powerful and sustained condemnation of racism and carceral violence.

And I think like this uprising, the call has never been louder to build a world where the prison industrial complex is obsolete.

[Theme music starts]

RUBY:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am.

As calls for police reform and prison abolition grow across the world, a new campaign in Australia led by formerly incarcerated women is seeking to combat the stigma of criminalisation.

Today, Tabitha Lean, one of the organisers of that campaign, on life after prison.

[Theme music starts]

RUBY:

Tabitha, how long were you in prison for? And when were you released?

TABITHA:

Well, I spent almost two years in prison and accumulation of around two years on home detention. I was released from prison in January last year, and reentry has been tough.

RUBY:

Tabitha Lean is a formerly incarcerated Gunditjmara woman, speaking from Kaurna country.

TABITHA:

Returning home and back into community is like having the world rush at you at about one hundred ks an hour. And in this country, returning citizens receive minimal preparation and very little assistance or resources, which makes reentry into communities challenging. And so despite being out for more than a year, I feel like I'm still trying to get my footing.

RUBY:

And so when you came out, what did you notice when you started trying to talk about your experiences inside?

TABITHA:

So this really curious thing happened when I got out, there was this kind of censoring of my voice every single time I wanted to speak about my experiences.

Now it came at me in several different ways, sometimes quite aggressively, sometimes subtly, and sometimes quite publicly. And I guess most obviously and predictably, the system didn't like me speaking out about my experiences in prison or raising publicly the violence and brutality. And I kept thinking, wow, this is just like every abusive relationship. It kind of thrives off silence, yeah?

And I think the thing that struck me was the permanency of the system being permanently relegated to a subclass of human existence. I am always going to be an ex-prisoner, an ex-con, an ex-offender. And the thing is, I'm 44 years old. My offending spanned two years, so I have 42 very good and very productive years under my belt. But I will forever be under the microscope for those two years of deviance. And I just, can't see where I'm ever going to be an ordinary citizen contributing to community or society.

And when people say you do the crime, do the time, that time never seems to end. Your criminal record stands for the rest of your life. It affects your ability to get employed, to get insurance, get housing, you can't even sit on your kids school committees. We are locked out of so many areas because of the one worst thing we have done in our lives.

And we’re the perpetual offender. No matter what we do to change our life or the way we contribute to society, we still hold that label.

RUBY:

In your article for The Saturday Paper, you mentioned this idea of the ‘perfect offender’. What do you mean by that?

TABITHA:

Yeah, look, it goes back to the conditions that are arbitrarily set for us to determine the validity of lived experience voice. I've noticed that people have constructed this idea of a perfect offender in their mind, and that varies on what they are doing.

So if they want to demonize the formerly incarcerated population, they'll pick the worst case. But if they want to include our voice in their work or publish our writing or interview us on custody matters or imprisonment, they like a quiet person. Someone who's sort of stumbled aimlessly into their criminal offending, maybe a little mischievous in their crime. They really like petty crime and always nonviolent offenses.

They want us to have some sort of hard luck story. A really crappy childhood, maybe an addiction, that certainly works for them. And for us women, they want us to have been a victim, especially if we’re black. They want us to have a story of triumph. They all want to hear this kind of overcoming the odds tale. And we cannot be angry, especially if we are a black woman. We cannot be angry. We can't swear or curse. They just kind of want this perfect, polite and unthreatening picture of criminality.

And I find it really tough when these kinds of conditions are set by people, organizations or media who say they support criminalized people. But they say that only if we meet the terms and conditions they attach to us, because when they cherry-pick their perfect offender, they are supporting and upholding the same dehumanizing elements that are so entrenched in this punishment system. By doing this, people are taking a political position that inherently supports the injustices of the colony.

RUBY:

And as an Aboriginal woman, does this issue hold even more significance for you, given the high rates of Indigenous incarceration in this country?

TABITHA:

Absolutely, the over criminalization and subsequent incarceration of our people is having massive effects in this country. We are seeing people being killed in custody. We are seeing people come out damaged and broken. And there are no resources to support our people.

I think that it's easier for Aboriginal people to imagine abolition because we have this kind of genetic memory of a world prior to prisons, we existed without police, without courts, without prisons or without justice systems.

I think that the solutions to the problems that we face right now found on the margins and the realities of Aboriginal people are relegated to the margins of this country. And I think that the solutions lie with us.

I think we can help the rest of this country imagine a place without prisons or this form of punishment, which really is not serving anyone.

RUBY:

We’ll be back in a moment.

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RUBY:

Tabitha, when did you decide that you wanted to start advocating on behalf of incarcerated women?

TABITHA:

So I decided I'd raise my voice and share my experiences to challenge that belief that caging people and controlling people makes us safe. I want to use my voice to invite people to imagine a different kind of world, a world free of punishment, imprisonment and exile, and instead a world where we live in communities grounded in love and care.

I kind of want to be part of conceptualizing new forms of justice, like real justice. Because right now, in my opinion, we view justice as this retributive justice, as simply doing to one person who has committed a crime on a harmful, bad act, doing the same to them that they have done to us.

And this kind of pull of vengeance is an impulse of the state and it's an impulse that we've internalized. And we begin to think that we will only actually feel better if we can make the person who hurt us feel the same way that we do instead of asking ourselves, how can we make this relationship better, we ask ourselves, how can we hurt them? And I just feel like that keeps us in this infinite circle of not accomplishing anything.

RUBY:

And can you tell me about the things that are involved in that advocacy, on a practical level. What have you been doing?

TABITHA:

Yes, sure. In early June, Debbie Kilroy from Sisters Inside convened the very first meeting of criminalized women in this country with a view to establishing a dynamic network of passionate women who had been incarcerated to drive our business our way for us.

Archival Tape -- Debbie Kilroy:

“We got a huge amount of women and girls who were really interested. And so we convened a meeting which was very powerful, how women are now not fearful to speak out in their own jurisdictions.”

TABITHA:

We all met via Zoom, obviously, because we came from across the country and due to COVID. We introduced ourselves

Archival Tape -- Debbie Kilroy:

“Some women knew each other, some didn’t. We introduced ourselves by our names and what jurisdiction we’d been in prison in our lifetime…”

TABITHA:

And I very quickly realized that we represented a cross-section of criminalized women. We came from different states, different nationalities, different convictions, and we all had different stories. But there was absolute strength in that difference.

Archival Tape -- Debbie Kilroy:

“It was honesty, it was free-talking with no filters. We could say what we want, how we want to say it. Whether you’re articulate or not articulate, use the language that you like. And very respectful.”

TABITHA:

But we were all grounded, I guess, in having the same carceral experience. It creates this kind of sisterhood.

Archival Tape -- Debbie Kilroy:

“We share those commonalities; of the trauma, of the isolation, of the solitary, of the harm that’s come to our children, those of us that are mothers, and that continual intergenerational harm…”

TABITHA:

And while we might have different views on where to from here in terms of abolition, because all of those conversations are still to be had as a national network, we are fairly resolute in making sure that any work that we do, any advocacy or activism will not support or extend the life or scope of the prison industrial complex.

Archival Tape -- Debbie Kilroy:

“It's a bigger picture of abolition than just the actual walls of prison. You know, we've got to actually end homelessness, address mental illness, the drug addictions, poverty, land rights. So there's a sense of urgency in what we need to do to decarcerate across the board.”

TABITHA:

So while we're committed to doing this long arm work about abolition, we're also going to be looking at strategies to reduce the suffering of those women who are still caged.

And this national network is about us having a voice, not a chair at someone else's table, but our own table. And it might just be this cheap fold up picnic table at the moment, but it's ours. And from it, we're going to do brilliant work, work that can change the face of punishment and justice in this country.

Archival Tape -- Debbie Kilroy:

“Nothing changes if nothing changes. And that’s why those of us with the lived experience must be at the table and must be driving the agenda for anything to do with criminalized and imprisoned women and girls and their families.”

RUBY:

Are you feeling any more hope at the moment because of the Black Lives Matter movement? It seems, at least at the very least, the voices that are calling for reform are louder at the moment.

TABITHA:

Absolutely. And I think Black Lives Matter is a movement that's gaining momentum in this country and across the world. But I'd really like to say that this isn't a new movement. Aboriginal people are not new to this movement. But we are true to it. We've been fighting for our lives for two hundred thirty two years and trying to get non Aboriginal people to listen to us when we say our lives matter and that what is happening in this country is violence.

And I think none of us hide or shy away from what we've done or who we were. But what we've done or who we were does not make our voices any less valid in this space. In fact, they make it more valid.

You know, and I would argue the person who isn't just desisting, the person who is constantly reentering the prison system. Their voices are the most important because why wouldn’t we be asking them why do they keep bouncing back to prison? Why would we not be drawing on their experiences to inform our actions going forward? Because, I just, it's nonsensical, but it's this stuff about, we offend people. It's the permanency of us being offenders that relegates our voices as useless.

I think the idea of this national network is saying, actually, we're not okay with that anymore. You know, there should be nothing about us without us. We want a seat at the table and my view is that we are the ones that own the table and that everyone else should be invited to have a seat at our table.

RUBY:

Tabitha, thank you so much for your time today.

TABITHA:

Thank you for giving me the chance to talk about all of this and for giving a space for lived experience voices as well.

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[Theme music starts]

RUBY:

Also in the news….

The Victorian government has announced $60 million dollars in funding to tackle mental health problems arising from the coronavirus pandemic.

The Minister for Mental Health said there had been a 23 percent increase in Victorians presenting at acute settings with a mental illness since the end of July.

The funding is aimed at extending mental health services and community mental health programs.

Premier Dan Andrews also announced 394 more coronavirus cases had been confirmed since Saturday, with 17 people dying from the virus in that time. 10 of those deaths are linked to aged care.

And US presidential candidate Joe Biden is expected to announce his Vice Presidential pick sometime this week, ahead of the Democratic National Convention on August 17.

Biden previously said he would announce his nominee in the first week of August, but those close to the campaign have said he will name his pick in the next few days.

I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am. See ya tomorrow.

[Theme music ends]

As calls for police reform and prison abolition grow across the world, a new campaign in Australia led by formerly incarcerated women is seeking to combat the stigma of criminalisation. Today, Tabitha Lean, one of the organisers of that campaign, on life after prison.

Guest: Tabitha Lean, a formerly incarcerated Gunditjmara woman.

Background reading:

Speaking out for criminalised women in The Saturday Paper

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7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper. It’s produced by Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow, and Michelle Macklem.

Elle Marsh is our features and field producer, in a position supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.

Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

New episodes of 7am are released every weekday morning. Subscribe in your favourite podcast app, to make sure you don’t miss out.

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283: “I am always going to be an ex-prisoner.”