SHELLIE MORRIS IS A STRONG YUNYUWA WOMAN AND A MULTI-AWARD-WINNING SINGER/SONGWRITER. SHELLIE SINGS IN AROUND 17 ABORIGINAL LANGUAGES, PRESERVING AND PROMOTING FIRST NATIONS CULTURE. SHE HAS PERFORMED IN BLACK ARM BAND AND WAS PART OF THE INTERNATIONALLY AWARD-WINNING MUSICAL DOCUMENTARY PRISON SONGS.
Because of Her we Can. That’s a big call. But literally, it’s the truth. The women in the more than 70 communities I’ve been involved with have been integral to my learnings, my knowledge, my journey.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been on the road doing a variety of projects, from working with young people at Mutitjulu, to creating a bunch of songs to celebrate NAIDOC Week with the women in Sector 4 in Darwin.
The women incarcerated in the new Darwin Correctional Facility have renamed the place the “Holtz Hotel”.
In my experience, it has been a common thing amongst inmates in Darwin, and most probably around the country, to re-name the correctional facilities they are incarcerated in and reference them to hotels – or “Hiltons”.
As Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people, we have a default to make things amusing. Most of us know someone who is in jail. That’s not to say we don’t see the tragedy that this reality is. It has always been our way to see the funny side to being incarcerated – if there can be a funny side to prison life. That’s not the reality, but that’s how we cope. It’s our sense of humour as black people, that helps us through the most difficult times in our lives.
Coming back to the present. I was recently asked to create a number of songs with women in Darwin Correctional Centre through the Women of Worth program.
This is a great program being run by the YWCA in Darwin and working with women for six months before they are released and then for a year after. The women who work on WOW are pretty incredible and deserve a big shout out for helping empower other women, instill pride, hope and be there as great humans.
“So they build a prison to house us. It would be nice if they offered some sort of rehabilitation or programs to help stop the rate of incarceration of us women, but sadly this is not the case. If there was more emphasis on trying to rehabilitate us and teaching us skills so that when we are released we would have something to ultimately help. Help us with confidence but also in being a productive member of society, we get locked top and forgotten about. Society hopes for the best but then wonders why people keep re-offending. The solution to the problem is easy, teach people skills and trades that can install a sense of worth.” – quote from a woman in Section 4
Moving around these correctional facilities can be stressful and pretty overwhelming, what with the eye scans, security checks – just like airports – and the anxiety associated with being judged and put in a “box” for identifying as Aboriginal.
Anyway, so after my eyes were scanned, we proceeded to the other area where we had to pick up a safety buzzer that had to be on our “body” in case of emergency.
We are then we are escorted through the gates which don’t have keys but, like a hotel room, have a “tap and go” card.
This was the first time visiting the new facility, following my involvement with Prison Songs, the musical documentary. My last visit was only a very short one to ask the men involved in Prison Songs if we had their approval to make a stage show which we put on for the Darwin Festival. I was the Indigenous Consultant and the co-writer of the music score to the Documentary Musical which was aired on SBS the 1st January 2015. That film then travelled around the world and won a bunch of awards.
When I embarked on Prison Songs, it was my first real glimpse into prison life both for the men and the women.
I had been visiting the prison for 10 years, doing NAIDOC gigs, International Women’s Day as well as song songwriting workshops with the women that enabled these women’s voices to be heard.
Prison Songs was almost two years of working with participants to interview, listen to their stories, work with the prison and then write the songs, have them approved and go back and work on any changes. It really got me very familiar with the ins and outs of the prison system and I really got to know about prison life from an inside perspective. Through that time, I got to know a lot of the people I was working with. I became part of their families. I stay in touch with many of them to this day, their journey and mine are entwined.
One thing I noticed in a big way over that time and watching the stats since, is the number of women being incarcerated is increasing. Today, the little, tiny women’s section is over-crowded.
I thought to myself “what’s going on here?”. I had heard and read that in recent years the incarceration rates for women had increased by 148% – according to Calla Wahlquist written for the Guardian Newspaper 14th May 2017. That’s a big statistic. That’s a lot. When I look at it from my own experiences and the places I visit, it seems like, with things like paperless arrests, that the NT is way exceeding that statistic.
What’s the reason for this? How are we failing?
Going back in through WOW the other week I was happy – and sad – to catch up with many women I had spent time with during Prison Songs. We had big hugs and cried and laughed.
Over the week, we shared a lot, my story, their stories, and we created four new songs. I heard stories of child sexual abuse, rape, and domestic violence which had lead to heartache, sorrow and self-abuse using drugs or alcohol to help numb the pain.
“Drug addicts are products of their environment. Many of us here have been abused physically and sexually yet (our abusers’) sentences are ridiculously small compared to us, who only had enough drugs to get them through the week or month. This is ridiculous and needs to change. Drug addicts a lot of the time are only trying to block out the past the pedophiles have created” – quote from a woman in Section 4.
Most of these women are victims. They are locked up in a new facility where the women’s part – called Section 4 feels like an after-thought.
There is a desire for more programs. For more up-skilling and tools to assist these women on the outside. There is a hairdresser and the Women of Worth program. The women feel like this is a bitter pill. Many of their abusers are getting better treatment than they are and they feel like second class citizens.
“We are an afterthought in this jail. As women we have no programs whatsoever except the Women of Worth program which is invaluable. The males have horticulture and woodwork and metal work and also they get to work in the kitchen to increase their skills we get nothing even though there is a fully functional bakery that has been never used” – quote from a woman in Section 4.
So, I’ll be celebrating this NAIDOC Week.
I’ll be celebrating all those incredible women who have come before me and who are fighting today for better conditions and a better society. But it’s not just NAIDOC Week. We need to do better as a society. And that’s not just for a week.