This could be the most important piece of writing I have ever done. This is a letter I’m writing to the community about my experience at Langi Kal Kal prison this week.

Dear members of my community,

This week, as part of the Future Shapers program, I visited Langi Kal Kal prison, an all male, minimum security prison about 45 km north-west of Ballarat. Langi Kal Kal (indigenous phrase meaning ‘resting place of the singing cicada’) is a working farm on 2695 acres that focuses on preparing prisoners for life after their sentence has been served. Our object for the day was to understand some of the barriers the prisoners face when they’re released into the community. 

The first thing that was clearly pointed out to us was that ALL of the current 345 residents at Langi Kal Kal are being released. Given that Langi is a protection prison, 75% of the inmates are sexual offenders. On hearing these words my walls immediately went up. We were to do a tour of the facility and every bottle green clade inmate I passed could be a sexual offender. I think it's only natural to feel confronted by such a situation but that was the whole point of the day. To be challenged, to keep your truth but be open to the experience. 

After a powerful introduction from Suzanne Cassar, the Reintegration Services Supervisor we were introduced to three of the four residents who’d be our tour guides. We broke down into smaller groups and each where shown a different area of the prison. At first glance Langi looks like a school camp. There are multiple buildings of varying sizes and the first one we visited was the geriatric and extra care accommodation that had been recently renovated by the inmates. I’d never thought about the elderly in prison but this space reminded me more of the geriatric wards mum used to work on as a nurse, rather than a prison. 

We visited ‘central’ which is where you go when you first arrive at Langi. There are different levels of accommodation where you start off in a dorm style house in an individual cell with other residents close to staff quarters then graduate to more relaxed living quarters where you can cook your own food and even grow a veggie garden. 

As we wandered through the grounds and visited the kitchen and the quickie mart it was starting to look like a pretty great place to live. Other than having to be present for the 6 counts they have throughout the day, you’d almost be envious of the stability and routine of the place. Every inmate (who is able) is paid to work full time in 1 of the 8 industries (farm, poultry, warehousing, metalwork, textiles, horticulture, maintenance, kitchen). There are sports teams, classes on all sorts of topics, gyms, walking tracks and from my perspective, it is a thriving community. Residents feel safe here. They know what to expect and they know what's expected of them.

This controlled environment is designed to help inmates prepare for the outside world. Simple life skills like budgeting and turning up for work on time are practised over and over again with the hopes that it will set them up for success upon release. It’s easy to romanticise the place. It wasn’t until I stepped into one of the inmates' rooms (a cell that had enough room for a single bed and a few personal belongings) that I remembered that this is still a prison. 

This is what makes this experience so conflicting. The residents here are here for a reason, yet, as I spent time with our hosts and learned more about their personal stories they transformed from being someone I thought I’d fear to someone who was a brother, a father and a son.

After we did the tour and lunch (supplied by the Langi kitchen) we broke into groups again and were able to ask our hosts questions about their challenges and fears about reentering society. This was the most important part of the day. This was when the prisoners became people. They were just as nervous as us. They understand what society thinks of them. Many of them have been disowned by their family and literally have no-one on the outside.  They’re under no illusions, despite the tranquil setting at Langi that being accepted into the community will determine their success or failure. Getting a job and a place to live are paramount. Without these the likelihood of being incarcerated again is 85%.

As a community we are responsible for their success. This was the mic drop for me. We are responsible for their success. Yes, these people have done some horrible things but as we were told at the beginning of the day - all of these inmates will be released. We can either push against their reintegration and hasten that reoffending or we can be more open minded and make that switch from prisoners to person. No one is asking for forgiveness. Especially from victims but when does a sentence end? 

Seeing the Corrections Victoria staff speak about their experiences is probably one of the most profound exercises in empathy and compassion I’ve ever witnessed. The majority of the staff we met were women and their ability to see past the offence and connect with the human standing before them was awe inspiring. These officers are role models for healthy and respectful relationships with women that many of the inmates have neer seen before. The work they’re doing is literally saving lives. 

When I asked one of the inmates what we needed to do as a community to help set them up for success the answer came quick and easy. Just give me a chance. This particular person was up for parole in a few months and had been doing job interviews online. He is so nervous about being released. He has served three sentences and only been out for a few weeks before reoffending. Each time he panicked. Overwhelmed by the chaos that is everyday life, by things we totally take for granted. He couldn't get a job, then could afford housing and defaulted back to the only way he knew how to make money and ended up back in prison. His fear is that this will happen again. His fear is that people will judge him before he has the opportunity to prove himself.

All he wants is a chance. 

As a community we are responsible for his success. As a business owner I need to consider what my biases are. What I assumed about prisoners in the past is no longer valid. This doesn’t excuse the unforgivable but what if by being open minded we could help create a positive contributing member for the community and not just another faceless statistic. 

Not many people are able to have the experience we had at Langi Kal Kal. That's why this letter could be one of the most important ones I write. As a community leader, what I say, do and write has repercussions. If someone in my sphere of influence reads this letter and thinks twice about employing a person with a criminal record then I’d be stoked. There is very little advocacy for people who have served time. It's one of society's wicked problems that is easiest to ignore until an ex-prisoner wants to move in next door…

Instead of throwing up your arms and giving it a hard ‘no’ please remember, their success is our success. 

As a community, we decide if they get that chance or not.

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