This article was written by Murray Cook, a fellow teacher at Long Bay Correctional Centre in Sydney and was published in the Sydney Morning Herald on Saturday 27/8/16. He sums it up very well and adds a human element to our case.
Jailhouse Blues: Premier’s decision will rock may lives
Pottering around the Blue Mountains Wintermagic festival recently, I heard a busker singing Knocking on Heaven’s Door. I rolled my eyes at my girl and we laughed knowing how many times I’d played that song in my 21 years of teaching music at Long Bay Jail.
As we approached, the busker put his guitar aside and enveloped me in a crushing hug. “Muzz,” he cried. “How great to see you on the outside.”
It was Big Jay, one of my ex-students. Flash back five years to when he’d threatened to punch my lights out in an angry rage. Now here he was – a well presented young man beaming with joie de vivre, playing and singing like a devil (and still using the chord charts I gave him).
On his release from jail, he spent his first cheque on a cheap guitar, caught a westbound train, found accommodation in a local dive and commenced busking in the railway tunnel. After a while the local publican, impressed at his punctual 5am starts, offered him a job – picking up glasses – and a room. A year later he was engaged to the barmaid. He offered to shout me a beer later. He was making great money.
These are the sorts of Shawshank Redemption-style stories we see teaching in jails. These are the sorts of stories that may come to an end in the next three months, thanks to our Premier Mike Baird’s decision to make nearly all professionally qualified correctional teachers in NSW redundant. All on the say so of consultants KPMG and corrections minister David Elliott. We are to be replaced by inexperienced, underqualified “trainers”, furnished by a yet-unnamed private provider.
I’ve always joked that the music industry is the only one in which it can be good to have a criminal record. It’s so difficult for guys like Jay – bright, hard-working but hamstrung by their poverty, abuse-stricken upbringing, deeds done out of desperation or just off-their chops amokness – to come out of the big house, find work, support and readjust to a society so different to the one they’d left years before.
Jay came barging into my class because he loved music and because he was trying to get out of the yard, some “gangstas” were after him. Six months later he was writing his own songs. He often told me his school horror stories, which meant he had minimal literacy. I tentatively suggested he try literacy classes to help his lyrical flow.
I introduced him to our literacy teacher, a UNSW literacy professor. She took him under her wing and soon he was writing poetry and cathartic stories about his life. He joined art and IT classes, eventually designing a cover for a CD he recorded in our makeshift studio and sold it in our Boomgate Gallery, making enough to keep him and his mates in cheap tobacco every “Buy-Up”.
Jay was one of the lucky ones. I’ve had students who were bashed to death, or who gave up and topped themselves or who ended up in psych wards. I’ve taught Bra boys and barristers. I’ve had many students, particularly Koori, who went on to study music, production, sound mixing and recording at TAFE and other institutions post release. Some have formed bands or became roadies. The self-esteem they gained from involvement in education is incalculable.
It’s not just about statistics, competencies, outcomes – despite the crushing weight of evidence for the anti-recidivistic effects of prison education. It’s about that tipping point in a person’s life when they can see that redemption, dreams and hope are possible. It’s about the long-term trust they build with qualified, compassionate, no-bullshit, courageous teachers. It’s about accredited courses leading to recognised qualifications. It’s about the welcoming atmosphere in the education units dotted about the complex, and the camaraderie and symbiosis between teachers, psychs, welfare, drug and alcohol counsellors and custodial staff. The black humour. The experience. The unflappability and acceptance of the inmates as people, not “clients” or “stakeholders”.
In 21 years I’ve seen and experienced the most astonishing things teaching in jail. I’ve changed for the better and helped people change their lives for the better, too. I’ll be very sad to go. But I will not go without a fight.
Musician Murray Cook has played with Midnight Oil, Mentals and Warumpi band and is a music teacher at Long Bay Correction Facility.
I agree with everything Murray says. I too have seen lives transformed throughout my years of teaching and I have learnt so much. I believe that education is valuable for everyone and especially for inmates housed in correctional centres.
I have posted a few times about what is happening in my world about planned outsourcing of education which ultimately means that my job is no more. I could take their very kind offer (insert sarcasm) of applying for a downgraded clerical role (reduced pay, conditions and role) but after 22 years as a teacher in this very challenging environment I think I’d rather cut my losses and run. I’m very opposed to the Government making teaching staff redundant in gaols and so I must fight on for our jobs.
My stories on the subject can be found in the following links if you’d like to read more:
What price Education in gaols – my article which was published online 29/7/16 and in full in NSW Teachers Federation Education journal 22/8/16
What can you do to help:
There is a petition that you can print off and sign here and an email can be sent to the Minister from this link if you are so inclined. (No pressure). I appreciate your support over the past few months and am determined to fight on for as long as is required.
I must point out that I am the Vice President of the Corrective Services Teachers Association with NSW Teachers Federation.
Public education beats crime every day
PS. Since publishing this post there have been more announcements from the government about hundreds of millions of dollars of funding for rehabilitation programs in gaols but yet they can’t (or won’t) keep the experienced, trusted and knowledgeable teachers who are already in place!! I am fiercely angry about this.
William Shakespeare’s Quote– Though she be but little, she is fierce – this fits me very well!