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“Go and tell people what you have learned”: Prisoner education in the spotlight

Rose Carnes, Deakin University

It is one year on from the conferring of my PhD, Unsettling White Noise: yarning about Aboriginal education in Western Australian prisons, a good time to cast my mind back on what I learned, how it continues to be relevant and the ways I have been able to pass that information on. From my research have come articles and conference presentations such as AVETRA, Racisms in the New World Order and the Centre for Education for Equality in Scotland. View conference proceedings.

Why this area of enquiry?

While non-Indigenous incarceration rates per hundred thousand remain static, the rate of incarceration of Indigenous people continues to rise steadily with around 40% of incarcerated Western Australians being Indigenous.


Figure 1 Comparing imprisonment rates in Australia and Western Australia July 2004- July 2014 by Indigeneity (Source of statistics, ABS, 2014)

Despite these figures, prisoner education is rarely investigated especially from an Aboriginal perspective.

The research approach


Figure 2 Story co-creation via the learning circle (Carnes, 2014, p. 176)

In my PhD work, I questioned societal structures and systems that perpetuate racism and Indigenous disadvantage in a Western Australian context. Using yarning as a culturally appropriate method, I learned from the experiences of Aboriginal ex-prisoners who shared their experiences with me as a critical ally.

What was learned

What participant stories revealed relates to and goes beyond prisons and education, reflecting the interrelatedness of Indigenous life, worldviews and problem solving. Experiences in prisons cannot be divorced from the broader structural and cultural influences shaping participants’ experiences of life. I use the term white noise to refer to the interference created by ignorance and privilege that prevents hearing Indigenous voices clearly. (To hear some white noise click here.

Potential white noise hindrances to Aboriginal people

Based on experiences of the participants two major areas of hindrance to prisoner education are identified
• The ongoing impact of intergenerational trauma
• Practical challenges inside and outside prisons such as lack of adequate physical and human resources, housing, employment, health and education.

Potentially helpful to Aboriginal people

Building strong relationships is the major goal in constructing a transformative educational framework based on f Honouring Aboriginal Sovereignty and Healing of Historical Trauma, and the actions of transformative education that recognise the need for starting with Aboriginal Agency and Becoming Informed as Whitefellas. Diagramatically, it is represented like this:

Figure 3 Unsettling white noise (Carnes, 2014, p. 330)

Turning down white noise

What stays with me as the most important thing I learned is that it is not appropriate for Indigenous people alone to be expected to make shifts in thinking in order to match expectations of dominant Settler cultures. Changes are also required of non-Indigenous mainstream systems, habits of mind and cultural self-awareness. Without such mutual transformation the din of white noise continues and reciprocal dignity and respect remains elusive whether inside or outside a prison.

Final words from a participant (Daisy)

I had asked “Daisy, what can I do that might be helpful, that might help make any kind of difference?” She smiled and said “finish that PhD and go and tell people what you have learned”. Given that responsibility – that is what I am now doing.

Some Further Interesting Reading

Aho, K. L.-T. (2014). “The Healing is in the Pain: Revisiting and Re-Narrating Trauma Histories as a Starting Point for Healing.” Psychology & Developing Societies 26(2): 181-212.

Alcoff, L. M. (1995). The problem of speaking for others. Who can speak? Authority and critical identity. J. Roof and R. Wiegman. Chicago, University of Illinois Press: 97-119.

Andersen, C. (2011). Impediments to educational success for Indigenous students. Two way teaching and learning: Toward culturally reflective and relevant education. N. Purdie, G. Milgate and H. R. Bell. Camberwell, Victoria, ACER Press: 93-106.

Archibald, J. (2008). Indigenous storywork: Educating the heart, mind, body and spirit. Toronto, UBC Press.
Armstrong, S. and D. Shillinglaw (2011). Talking the talk: The soft tissue of reconciliation. Two way teaching and learning: Toward culturally reflective and relevant education. N. Purdie, G. Milgate and H. R. Bell. Camberwell, ACER Press: 223-242.

Atkinson, J. (2002). Trauma trails: Recreating song lines. North Melbourne, Spinifex.

Atkinson, J. (April 12, 2012). “An educaring approach to healing generational trauma in Aboriginal Australia.” Australian Institute for Family Studies seminar series Retrieved May 18, 2012, from http://www.aifs.gov.au/institute/seminars/2012/atkinson/audio.html.

Behrendt, L. (2012). Indigenous Australia for dummies. Milton, Queensland, Wiley Publishing Australia.

Cunneen, C. (2005/2006). “Racism, discrimination and the over-representation of Indigenous people in the criminal justice system: Some conceptual and explanatory issues.” Current Issues in Criminal Justice 17(3): 329-346.

Perry, B. D. (1996). “Neurodevelopmental Adaptations To Violence: How Children Survive The Intragenerational Vortex Of Violence.” from http://www.healing-arts.org/tir/perry_neurodevelopmental_adaptations_to_violence.pdf.

Smith, G. H. (October 2003). Keynote address Alaskan Federation of Natives (AFN) Convention, Anchorage, Alaska, USA. https://faculty.washington.edu/pembina/all_articles/Smith_G2003.pdf

Smith, L. T. (1999). Decolonising methodologies: Research and Indigenous people. London, Zed Books.

Vacca, J. S. (2004). “Educated prisoners are less likely to return to prison.” The Journal of Correctional Education 55(4): 297-305.

Walls, M. L. and L. B. Whitbeck (2012). “The intergenerational effects of relocation policies on Indigenous families.” Journal of Family Issues 33(9): 1271-1293.

Williams, S. T. (February, 2007). Indigenous values informing curriculum and pedagogical praxis. Doctor of Philosophy dissertation, Deakin University. http://dro.deakin.edu.au/eserv/DU:30023289/williams-indigenousvalues-2007.pdf

Yunkaporta, T. and S. McGinty (2009). “Reclaiming Aboriginal knowledge at the cultural interface.” The Australian Educational Researcher 36(2): 55-72.