Former inmate and drug addict turned his life around, but not all are as lucky
CHRIS Ugle suffered years of despair, aberrant behaviour, depression and suicidal thoughts after he lost both his parents in the same year.
Trouble began in his early teen years, but it spiralled out of control when both his parents died 11 years ago. He was 19 at the time.
The Darwin local spent most of his young life in trouble with the police, turning to crime and drugs to “numb the pain”.
“My father had a massive heart attack and my mother died of cancer in the same year and that’s what took its toll on me,” Mr Ugle said.
“I went off the rails. I got involved in the wrong crowd and was doing the wrong things, I involved in criminal activity and getting into trouble with police while under the influence of alcohol and drugs,” he said.
Mr Ugle, now 30, said during this period of his life, he lost his self worth, did not feel settled and had no structure.
At 19, he ended up in Perth’s Hakea Prison for burglary, describing his time in jail as “horrific” and “shocking”.
But he repeated the same offence three years ago.
“I was highly strung out on meth every day. It was my whole lifestyle,” he said.
“Having drugs, handing over drugs, doing all the bad stuff. It’s all real, whatever people think happens, happens.
“You’re doing anything just to get a hit and that’s the sort of lifestyle I was living just three years ago.”
The father-of-one said he suffered from suicidal thoughts the moment he lost both parents.
“I was still hanging around bad people. If people in the criminal system can see you have no one to turn to, they leech onto you and suck the life out of you and that’s what was happening to me — I was getting the life sucked out of me.
“I had nowhere to go, no family, no friends.”
According to Gerry Georgatos, national co-ordinator of the National Indigenous Critical Response Service, in the first year after release, inmates are up to 10 times more likely to suicide or die unnaturally compared to their time in jail.
“It is in the first four to six weeks that a significant proportion die unnaturally. In my work with suicide-affected families, we experience such tragedies regularly,” he told news.com.au
Data released last week by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) revealed that suicide in Australia is at a 10-year high, jumping from 2866 deaths in 2016 to 3128 people having died by suicide last year.
“I have been warning every year for the last decade that the national suicide toll, and attempts, will increase and I expect that the 2018 toll to be even higher,” Mr Georgatos said, explaining one of the highest risk groups are former inmates soon after leaving prison.
Mr Ugle said given his experiences, he is not at all surprised at the alarming statistics surrounding inmates and suicide.
“If they get out of jail and society and their family rejects them, they are going to get back on the drugs, they are going to get back into criminal activity and if that doesn’t work, guess what, they are going to neck themselves or overdose.
“I’ve seen it and heard it all.”
But his life turned around when he got a suspended sentence for his most recent charge, crediting the Ngalla Maya program for supporting him mentally, psychologically and equipping him with life skills.
It is a program that offers former inmates and those at risk of being incarcerated a chance to become qualified in industries and placed in employment — and because of it, the scaffolder recently completed 12 certificates at the Skills Training and Engineering Services in Bibra Lake and has been clean for 18 months.
“Those who are thinking that their lives are at an end or (that there’s) no hope left, I just want to say there is light at the end of the tunnel,” Mr Ugle said.
“It’s never too late but changes don’t happen unless you make the change and Ngalla Maya is bound by that, even if it’s that one step.”
The Federal Government-funded Ngalla Maya Aboriginal Corporation aims to achieve up to 80 success stories over three years, however it achieved this in less than one year.
“They set a national record because the bar was so low, and it’s an indictment of everyone, of COAG, that programs such as this have not been massively invested in to turn lives around, to reduce reoffending, to change lives, to save lives, to reduce the suicide toll,” Mr Georgatos said.
“Thanks to the Federal Minister (for Indigenous Affairs) Nigel Scullion we were given a chance to make a big difference. Now we need investment 20 times more to help the many and not just some. All the states and territory governments must invest in changing lives.”
Mr Ugle said it’s not about looking for a handout.
“We just want to be able to expand the program so it can help save more lives, like it did mine.”
By Gerry Georgatos
17th November 2017
Trauma must not become your injurious oppressor
Our days on this earth are not many and what we do with our days matters, not only for us but for those around us and for those whom we leave behind. Trauma is a part of life, few are unscarred. However for far too many, trauma overwhelms them and subsumes their personality. Trauma becomes the core of who they are, it becomes their predominant identity. For too many recovery from trauma becomes impossible, debilitating them. However, I argue that we have both inadvertently and intentionally created the perception that trauma is something to be dealt with gently, patiently and that it is a lifelong experience, a whole of life approach of management and coping. Well, I argue that this should not be the case.
Trauma is always damaging but it should not be allowed to dominate an individual. We are educating trauma into the modern human experience as debilitating, that it needs to be unpacked. It needs to be acknowledged, in many instances understood, but in the briefest stretch possible, and reduced to a scar. Who we are should not be reduced to the traumatic events in our lives, avoidable or unavoidable traumas. We should be the sum of all our experiences, contextualised in the dawn of daily meanings that appear endless.
The discourses of psychiatry and psychology contribute to much which does in our days on this earth, presumptively incarcerating people, who are but fleeting mortal coil, into endless effects from traumatic events. From within these discourses narratives of stresses are born, of interrupted form and content, of endless unfairness that only serve to do away with the psychosocial positive self, that degenerate people to negative selves.
Skewed understandings of trauma have borne industries of rogues, some who are well-meaning and others who are carpetbaggers, all whom perpetuate trauma, displace increased levels of trauma on the affected individual, compound trauma with a relentless accumulation of stresses.
Trauma should not corral people into miserable and unproductive lives, into a constancy of the fearful. How many people state that I cannot do this or that because of trauma? No-one should thwart people by paralysing them into blame narratives, whether of the self or through a fear of perpetrators.
Particularly during the last half century we have complicated the negotiation of what we are as a result of a traumatic event and how we should respond to traumatic events. There is now a perennial default position of medicalisation and effective incapacitation. At best we are sold vacillating emancipatory approaches of how to re-engage with society but that steal years of life or imprison the mind lifelong or that require someone affected by trauma into a daily management of the self. This is diabolical education of how to respond. It destroys the positive self. The ability to discover the truth should not be outstripped by the capacity to manifest deceit.
We need to educate that trauma – whether incidental, cumulative, collective – should not be allowed to dominate the individual, a family, a collective, society, the human discourse. This is not about “moving on” but about not allowing trauma or anyone who professes to be a trauma recovery expert to corral someone within trauma. We must identify and acknowledge trauma and do away with it, reduce it to that scar, transform it into a protective factor, at most use it to embolden and empower, to strengthen. Trauma should not become an oppressor and therefore forever injurious. The way we deal with trauma today is disgraceful, degenerating people to negative selves, aggressively trapping people into multiple and composite traumas. These discourses are a massive violence.
There are horrific and abominable cruelties by human beings, the slaughter of humanity, genocide, horrific punitive actions and abuses however we are a species like all other species with adaptive processes.
Recently I wrote, “It is possible to change the lives of the poorest and most neglected. Behavioural issues should not be trapped into mental health issues and trauma subsume the human experience.”
“Let us improve lives and contextualise traumas to wounds, scars as opposed to letting them predominate. I am part of projects successfully mentoring, training and employing the poorest, those who were chronically unemployed, without an education, illiterate.”
“I and colleagues brought scores out of homelessness and prisons into tertiary education and with relentless multi-layered psychosocial support we got them across the line, they graduated and they are leading the way for their families, breaking and ending cycles of poverty and aberrant behaviour.”
I believe in radical approaches that ask of people who have endured traumatic events to remain steadfast in their belief of their positive self, that it need not be interrupted or reduced. I am a bleeding heart and my compassion for others defines my values but I have a ‘no time wasting’ approach in that trauma affected people have to get back on their feet, to stay solid-in-their-thinking. I am part of projects that are working with people that others surrender to the ‘too hard basket’. We need to spread the love but not distort that love to a point that we debilitate others. We need to forgive at every turn. We need to speak solidly with a salt of the earth approach. We must never steal days, weeks, months, years and decades from anyone’s life. Even the most affected traumatised people I have worked with, I have urged the radical approach and that you can get back on your feet immediately. The success stories are another article.
Where we can assist with love and forgiveness where necessary we must do so. Years ago I wrote, “There is nothing as profoundly powerful as forgiveness. The forgiving of others validates self-worth, builds bridges and positive futures. Forgiveness cultivated and understood keeps families and society solid as opposed to the corrosive anger that diminishes people into the darkest places, into effectively being mentally unwell. Anger is a warning sign to becoming unwell. Love comes more natural to the human heart despite that hate can take one over. In the battle between love and hate, one will choose love more easily when in understanding of the endless dark place that is hate and of its corrosive impacts. Hate can never achieve what love ever so easily can. Hate and anger have filled our prisons with the mentally unwell, with the most vulnerable, with the poor – and not with the criminally minded.”
“I have worked to turn around the lives of as many people in jail as I possibly could but for every inmate or former inmate that people like me dedicate time to in order to improve their lot – ultimately there is a tsunami of poverty related issues and draconian laws that flood offenders and fill prisons. Jailing the poorest, most vulnerable, the mentally unwell, in my experience, only serves to elevate the risk of reoffending, of normalising disordered and broken lives, of digging deeper divides between people, of marginalising people. It has been my experience that in general people come out of prison worse than they went in. We push maxims such as violence breeds violence, hate breeds hate but yet we incarcerate and punish like never before. Instead of prison sentences working as some sort of deterrent we have reoffending, arrest and jailing rates increasing year in year out. One of society’s failures is the punitive criminal justice system and the penal estate.”
“However despite the punitive penal estate having clearly failed society, we continue with it. For some it has become easier to lie and act as if the failure is a success or as if there are no alternatives than to accept the workload in another direction. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, in the Brothers Karamazov, wrote, “Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love.” We have lied for so long in this capitalistic meritocratic society that for far too many, especially for those in the consummation of privilege – they have ceased to love and to forgive. The psychological, emotional and spiritual wellbeing of others, of those most vulnerable – lost to them. The mantra these days is the suffocation of ‘self-responsibility’. Dostoyevsky, who also authored Crime and Punishment and the House of the Dead, wrote, “The degree of civilisation in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”'
“Socrates understood that esteem was imperative to the striving for justice and goodness. This is where we fail people, we are not there to build or rebuild their esteem, to strive lovingly. Socrates would have us believe evils are the result of the ignorance of good. I am with Socrates, we have a society that is not bent by reinforcing the innate, of reinforcing ‘good’, but we are a society that demands an impression of what good might be and punish those who transgress. What we are after is unilateral orderliness among all people – and justice argues itself as blind, where everyone is equal but this is a stupendous lie, the law supports privilege and thrashes into the vulnerable, poor, sick – inequality is entrenched by the criminal justice system. Sjoren Kierkegaard argued that sin meant wilfulness and unlike the Socratic view of ignorance of good, Kierkegaard was bent by the view that some people simply do not want to be good. As naïve as I may appear, the Socratic view aligns with what I have seen in prisons – of people who want to be good, innately are good, but who have accumulated despair, displaced anger, resentment from impoverished or disrupted upbringings.”
An inmate said to me, “It is best I am here, and best I keep on coming back, because it is the only hope my children have.” – An inmate said, “I have no hope in here but it’s even worse out there.” The penal estate is not rehabilitative, not restorative. There are limited job skills programs, limited education opportunities. The penal estate should have been an investiture in people rather than a dungeon, an abyss. The opportunity for healing, psychosocial empowerment, for forgiveness, for redemption, for education skills and qualifications are continually bypassed.
Forgiveness is not an act of mercy but of empathy, compassion, of virtue. According to vast bodies of research forgiveness has many benefits, outstripping negatives and risks. Forgiveness strengthens families, communities, societies. The most significant finding is the obvious, that forgiveness makes us happier. Forgiveness improves the health of people and communities. Forgiveness sustains relationships. Forgiveness builds and rebuilds lives. Forgiveness connects people, and what better medium for this than through kindness. It was Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the chairperson of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission who argued forgiveness as the only way forward to “true enduring peace”.
People are more likely to be good without having to go to prison but instead who are supported. For those who are sentenced to prison, these must be places where people come first, not last. But there must be forgiveness. They must be assisted in every way to forgive themselves. As a society our focus must be on forgiving and redemption. The most powerful kick-start is a society – the justice systems and our Governments – who are forgiving and hence the message of love will rush to everyone. For far too many people, repentance without forgiveness is torturous. But we must be a forgiving society to make this possible, and for now the odds are against us, as for too many forgiveness is a radical, gratuitous proposition.
With one project I am involved with, I visited Acacia Prison outside of Perth and spoke to soon to be released inmates – about believing in themselves. They had spent the prime of their life going in and out of prison, no substantive education or employment. Three days later three of them walked out of prison and on that day walked through the doors of the Ngalla Maya Aboriginal Corporation and into five week training week courses. That was 18 weeks ago. These three young men completed the training and are now employed, earning thousands of dollars each week in remote housing construction. Their lives had been consumed by train wreck childhoods, cheated by narratives that their traumas were insurmountable. I said to them, we all have a story, I have a story, but you just turn up each day to the training.
Trauma is real but trauma should never dominate anyone. No-one should ever be cheated of their positive self. Our days on this earth matter. Live them.