Photo: Mahala Strohfelt
Vickie Roach, Writer, Yuin woman
Vickie Roach was nine years old when she started running away from her foster family, and 13 when she left for good. Removed from her mother at just two, Vickie felt powerless and out of place most of her life. Her mother, too, was from the Stolen Generations and by the time a teenage Vickie finally reconnected with her, the damage had already been done. Vickie found solace in the underworlds of Sydney and Melbourne, a community of people that she says gave her a purpose and identity for the first time in her life.
Vickie’s experience of the juvenile justice system was so bad that, when she was arrested at 15, she lied about her age and gave a false name rather than face ‘juvie’ again. Her first experience in an adult jail was terrifying. However by then, Vickie was well immersed in the seamier side of life. Too young to access government benefits, she turned to prostitution to support herself.
“I had to figure out how to support myself. I was squatting and I got into drugs and that was the biggest thing that happened back then. I had my first shot of heroin and that was the start of my habit,” she says candidly.
“I was seventeen when I got done for self-administration of heroin. The cells they put me in at first were pretty scary; they were underground with concrete floors and cement walls, like dungeons, but with lights that never turned off. Your bed was a pallet and you were given these smelly, unwashed grey army blankets. I went to jail for six months.”
“I got out for four months then I went back in again for credit fraud. After that, it was ten years before I went back inside. I got married, got off the dope and had a son.”
But life was still a struggle. Her marriage breakdown, violent relationships and an acrimonious custody court case where an alcoholic ex-partner was awarded full custody of her son eventually broke Vickie down, and her hard-fought battle to stay clean was lost again.
“The last time I was inside really changed me. I was in for four years and got out in 2008. I’d already been in for nine months thirteen months prior to that which was when I got charged with the police pursuit. I hit another car and the other driver was badly injured when both cars burst into flames.”
Vickie had been escaping a violent relationship that had almost killed her several times and her ex-partner eventually tracked her down and forced her into a ‘smash and grab’ at a local convenience store. A police chase ensued, ending in disaster. But what followed was the start of her new life.
“When I went away that last time, things had already started to change for me,” Vickie says. “I started studying sociology philosophy and literature. I’ve always been an avid reader and had a strong sense of justice, and started talking with the community lawyers and activists who were coming into the jail.”
“When I was young, I felt like I had no power to do anything. All I could do was rebel in my own way and run away. But my focus shifted while I was inside. And I knew for certain that something had to be done about Indigenous incarceration.”
In 2007, Vickie was instrumental in a High Court challenge that struck out legislation banning prisoners who were serving three years or less from voting. Now 56 and on the other side of the law, Vickie is a passionate advocate for change in the criminal justice system.
“Nothing is being done because there has been no will to do anything. Governments are too scared to do anything because they’re worried about alienating the voters,” she says.
“And there’s nothing to be gained from a purely punitive approach; it doesn’t deter crime. I’d like to see more diversionary approaches to family violence like the Koori courts, like a circle of Elders.”
“There will always be people that society has to be protected from, and they have to be somewhere secure where they can’t harm other people but why does it always have to be a jail? I’d like to see alternatives that don’t make things worse for the offender.”
“We know the solutions – investment in housing, education and health – that’s what makes a difference and what helps communities stay strong and healthy.”
“The only way to get people out of the criminal justice system is to have an alternative that’s healing, that’s not punitive. You have to give people dignity and everything about the criminal justice system takes that away. The criminal justice system damages people – it damages women, children, men, entire communities.”
“We have to start diverting everybody from the criminal justice system and not just to community corrections.”