Case Study: Des Rogers

Photo: Lara McKinley/OxfamAUS

Des Rogers - Arrernte, Director of Operations, Aboriginal Housing Victoria

Des Rogers is an Arrernte man who has lived in and around Alice Springs most of his life. As a teenager and young man, he spent four and a half years imprisoned for what many Australians would consider relatively minor crimes including car theft and “break and enter”.

Des was first in trouble with the law and imprisoned at the age of fourteen, before reoffending and returning to jail in his late teens.

His experience is that Aboriginal men and women who prosper after spending time in jail do so despite the prison system, not because of it. “Just locking people up is not the answer,” says Des. “[The justice system’s] ... focus is too weighted towards prison. Putting aside for the moment that Aboriginal and non-Indigenous Australians can be treated differently and receive different punishments for the same crimes, incarceration provides inadequate rehabilitation, reintegration and broader life options for Indigenous Peoples once they get out,” he says.

Des was one of the fortunate ones. Despite being jailed in Alice Springs and spending a further four years in South Australia’s Yatala jail — approximately 1,500km from his family and community — he resolved to turn his life around. This he did, going on to establish his own business, holding senior positions in Bushfires NT, the MacDonnell Shire Council, as well as the position of Chairperson of ATSIC and of the Indigenous Housing Association of the Northern Territory.

“Prison tears communities apart, it doesn’t rebuild them. People are generally more violent on leaving the prison system; this includes domestic violence. Offenders come out of prison angry. And I think one of the reasons they are angry, and it sounds like a bizarre statement, is they’re coming from a system that provides on one level a sense of ‘security’, and are being thrown back into a world of hopelessness,” says Des. “One in which they are often seen as worthless … and so the cycle repeats itself. This ‘revolving-door’ hasn’t changed since I was in jail 40 years ago.”

Des believes governments need to rethink and invest resources away from the prison system. “Aboriginal people will follow the rules. But, like everyone, they need to be presented with options to change their lives. Imprisonment reduces these opportunities.”

“If we don’t provide our people with options, then we’re always going to be behind the eight-ball,” says Des, referring to Indigenous disadvantage and attempts to improve community safety.

He thinks programs developed in genuine consultation with Aboriginal people, and delivered by them, would see some very positive outcomes.

“I’ve seen it all my life, particularly in remote Australia,” says Des. “People come, most with good intentions, but the good intent has negative consequences. [This is because outsiders] … come with an imposed agenda. They have a predetermined outcome of what they want,” he says.

“We need genuine consultation, but we also need long-term and adequate funding for Aboriginal organisations to deliver diversion programs as an alternative to jail. That’s the crux of it.”