recidivism and rilke

my desk is divided in two today. On the left is a growing pile of research reports and statistics about prisons and inmates in Victoria… on the right is a collection of poetry by Rilke and Rumi, inspiring a wee idea i’ve got stirring at the moment.

prison stats:

Where do prisoners come from? 25 percent of the Victorian Prison population comes from just 2.1 percent of the 647 postcode areas in Victoria. These postcode areas are also the ones with some of the highest rates of child abuse and neglect, psychiatric hospital admissions and long-term unemployment [Source: Jesuit Social Services, 2003]. I’ve met men in prison who come from families where within memory, no-one has ever had a job. We’re talking 5th generation unemployment…

Rates of crime in Victoria are decreasing: The crime rate in Victoria has declined 22.4 per cent over the last five years and is the lowest in more than a decade. [source: Victorian Premier’s website]

Rates of imprisonment in Victoria are increasing: The number of prisoners in Victoria increased 60% between 30 June 1996 and 30 June 2006. [source: Department of Justice website]

: 53 per cent of the prison population on 30 June 2006 had previously been in prison. [source: ABS]. Almost 60 percent of 17-20 year olds return to prison within 2 years of being released. 43 percent of prisoners whose initial sentence was between 6 and 12 months will return to prison. [source: Department of Justice]

And from the other side of the desk, a taste of Rilke…

Title Page [from The Voices]

It’s easy for the rich and fortunate to remain silent,
nobody wants to know who they are.
That is why the destitute must show themselves,
must say: I am blind,
or: that is what I’m about to become,
or: it’s not going very well with me here on Earth,
or: I have a sick child,
or: this is where I’m kind of all stuck together.

And perhaps even that is not enough.

Despite everything, as if they were things,
people walk right by, and so they must sing.

And one hears good music there.

Truly, people are strange; They’d
rather hear castrati in boys’ choirs.

But God himself comes and remains a long time
when these disfigured ones begin to disturb him.

Rainer Maria Rilke (tr. Cliff Crego)


  1. The period when I was coordinating chaplaincy for the UCA in Victoria from 1997 to 2000 was a time when there was a dramatic increase in the prison population. The sudden increase was blamed on the Kennett government’s enthusiasm for law and order legislation. Victoria couldn’t open prison beds fast enough, which resulted in massive overcrowding and double bunks being put into many cells so that two prisoners were sharing cells designed for one. This created significant tensions because they were being locked in together for at least 12 hours a day and many of them did not have the interpersonal skills required to negotiate shared space particularly well. I think, however, that the incarceration rate in NSW is still higher than in Vic.

    One of the young men (early 20s) I met on a prison visit came to see me in my office soon after he was released – because I had written to thank him for talking to a prison chaplains’ inservice some months before and the Uniting Church chaplain in “his” prison at Bendigo had been helpful to him, so he hoped I might be too. He had been released five days before Christmas with $500 to last him until his first Social Security payment a couple of weeks later. He had spent all but about $5 on Christmas presents and some new clothes because no-one had ever taught him any budgeting skills. He said to me that he could go out and run some scam to get some money, but he didn’t want to end up back in jail. Fortunately, I was able to refer him on to a Uniting Church parish mission close to his mother’s home where he was staying. He commented as he left that one of the hardest things he found about being out of jail was the lack of structure in his day – he missed the five times a day roll-calls even though he didn’t appreciate having to stand at attention waiting for his name to be called. Getting work with a prison record behind you isn’t easy. Existing on Social Security requires some quite significant budgeting skills which many young people don’t have. The current pressure in society is to have things. Is it any wonder that the recidivism rate amongst young people is so high?

  2. I heard a teaching from an English pastor (Paul Scanlon) who had spent the previous years challenging & changing the culture of his chutch. The catalyst for the change was an overwhelming realisation that whilst they had a heart for the lost, they prayed for the lost, they had meetings about programs for the lost but no-one in fact knew or had any substantial relationships with the very people they were aching to serve.
    It nade me wonder about the need for our churches to become dangerous places. Where the gatherings are not just meeting the real needs of those for whom faith & church is a familiar existence, but also for those for whom this is going to be difficult & for whom most of the current culture will never be appropriate. We have been challenged with this very issue in our church. There are a number of ex prisoners that live in our area (I suspect we are one of “those” postcodes) & a small number of these people regulralry make their way into our services. This has prompted more than one discussion about how do we welcome these people, proclaim the gospel to them in a way they will be able to hear it, keep our people safe (especially our “many” children) from people who are a risk to be around sometimes; in effect, how do we remain authentic witnesses to the Gospel to people for whom Christ also died.
    There have been no easy answers, but there have been wonderful moments such as the one when we baptised a former local drug dealer & his wife. Just a beautiful moment.

  3. Pardon my dyslexic typing. I am at work & monitoring a “book recording” whilst I type this. Sow thre arrr sumtyms menny erorz

  4. Georgina

    Yes interesting how a victims responses are taken for granted by the media and society at large. Had they recieved a prison sentance they could have come out better criminals than they are now. There is also something about prison shiellding them from the full reality of having to live in society recognised for who they are and their crime, to become vunerable themselves.

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