Ready For Change: The stories that led me here

By Ta'ase Vaoga, May 18, 2017

Recently I returned from Sydney where I was able to visit the One Life exhibition which documents the experiences of Australian women in the Criminal Justice System. These women were either ex-prisoners or advocates.

The women themselves were portrayed beautifully and honestly by photographer Belinda Mason, at times very raw but very human. The striking thing about the stories, particularly the ones from former prisoners, was seeing the journeys of self-discovery each had been on to find love, reconciliation, healing and restoration when back in ‘normal life’ – whatever that is.

The most powerful part of the exhibition for me was Mason’s invitation to those participating to bring precious items with them that ‘weave the chapters of their lives together.’ I saw these as the things that kept people grounded while incarcerated or working with those affected by the criminal justice system. People brought with them collages of photos, letters from loved ones, rosaries, soft toys, art, tools and much more. They were precious to them and somehow precious to me. This is where I felt most connected to their stories. This is where the stories came to life.

Like many others, I had subscribed to the ‘lock ‘em up and throw away the key’ mentality. When I first started at JustSpeak, it wasn’t really because it was about criminal justice issues, I was bringing a particular set of expertise and knowledge and I most certainly was coming from a place of learning. However, since being involved with JustSpeak as a volunteer, my thinking has shifted to something quite different.

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That something different means it made sense for me to visit the exhibition and learn about the real life stories about the people who have been criminalised. And that journey to the exhibition is thinking about a whole raft of things from decarceration to prisoner voting. But primarily it is the incredibly human aspects of people who have made mistakes, people who are a product of broken communities, families; broken lives; broken institutions.

New Zealanders have their own stories, their own experiences of the criminal justice system. Stories that led some to be criminalised. Stories that sometimes start with a failure of society to care for those who live in our communities. Be it mental health, housing, poverty or structural racism - these are like undercurrents which can lead to criminalisation. It’s disheartening to say the least that we live in a society that for many doesn’t foster an environment where people can thrive. A place where we can make mistakes but also given opportunities to rehabilitate and restore – to build communities.

Just like the belief that it takes a village to raise a child, it’s going to take a whole societal shift in thinking to change how we view crime and punishment; how we view prisons and our criminal justice system.

It’s time to have a massive re-think about our justice system. I’m ready for a change, are you?

If you’re in Sydney you can currently check out the One Life exhibition at The Rock Discovery Museum, Kendall Lane, The Rocks, Sydney, until 16 June 2017. More information here http://www.australianphotography.com/news/new-exhibition-puts-focus-on-women-s-criminal-justice

Ta’ase Vaoga has just started at JustSpeak as Engagement Manager. She'll be working with our volunteers and supporters, as well as being on our social media channels and supporting JustSpeak events.