Criminal justice expert Marietta Martinovic has had an inside perspective of life behind bars for Australia’s burgeoning population of prison inmates.
It was in her former job as a Victorian community corrections officer that Martinovic saw the revolving doors of our jails from which countless prisoners emerge only to re-offend and be returned.
“If we are to reduce offending in our community, we have to understand that our crime and justice agenda needs to be smart about crime and not just simply tough on crime,’’ Martinovic said.
She left her corrections job to specialise as a criminologist and now Martinovic is celebrating the success of a pilot program she instigated in Victoria that pairs RMIT’s criminal justice students with prisoners to study the same courses and to do so behind bars.
RMIT University is the first Australian University to run an Inside Out Prison Exchange program, which originated in the USA in 1997, and has taken off in Victoria with the strong support of Corrections Victoria.
“No matter how much I try and explain to my students what life is like when you are incarcerated, it doesn’t compare with the contact they have with inmates and hearing from them for 15 consecutive weeks,’’ she said.
“Until now, they have been learning about crime and justice from text books.’’
The experience has been uniquely educational for RMIT’s “outside’’ students who are learning first-hand about crime, corrections and justice around the world while their incarcerated study mates are utilising their time in prison to gain an insight into further education and understanding of their past behaviours.
The students studied a range of subjects in Comparative Criminal Justice Systems and compared prison systems in the US with the UK, Australia, Iran, and Scandinavian countries.
They read, watched documentaries, held discussion panels, wrote 400-word essays and participated in group presentations.
They also presented 1,800 word assessments on what they had learned.
“This program allows them to spend time with offenders and to hear of their experiences in a role that is not based on authority, but of equal standing as students in class together, and that is what they are now learning.’’
Martinovic describes the early success of the fledgling Inside Out Prison Exchange
Program as outstanding, culminating in the recent graduations of 50 RMIT “outside’’ and “inside’’ students, attended by corrections and RMIT University heads.
External students visited the Dame Phyllis Frost Centre and Marngoneet Correction Centre weekly for three months, studying alongside inmates deemed low risk offenders.
“Insiders are perfect students and the program has the potential to help break the cycle that sees many of them returned to jail.
“Once they are sentenced to prison, they may lose all their connections – their links to their family, their employment, any external support they had been receiving.
“By offering them study courses, we are assisting in breaking the cycle by helping learn new things, gain employment.’’
“Research shows that prison inmates engaged in study are much less likely to go on and reengage in crime.’’
Martinovic specialises in the impact of criminal sanctions on offenders and their families and said her original job drove her return to further her own studies.
She advocates community-based corrections as a better alternative to imprisonment.
“It avoids the costs of incarcerating people, they remain connected with their outside world, remain employed and useful members of society, they are paying taxes and contributing to their communities.’’
She said the Inside Out Prison Exchange Program was a win-win, for outside and inside participants as well as their families and University and prison staff and supporters.
“The graduation of the students in the Inside Out Program was more moving and more special to me than when I graduated with my PhD,’’ she said.
“It showed that we are making a difference and also seeing the difference that we make.’’
To date, more than 500 Inside-Out courses have been taught internationally, drawing on 465 instructors from 180 universities around the world.
A lecturer in Global Studies in the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies, Martinovic travelled to America to train as a program instructor.
She said inside students had a lot to offer RMIT’s criminal justice students.
“They have lived the experience, whereas I and others are lecturing and teaching corrections and justice.’’
The main aims of the program had been to develop a classroom environment where participants listened to and respected each other, and where each inside and outside student had a voice.
“It also makes higher education more available to incarcerated individuals and encourages inside and outside students to commit to social engagement and to see themselves as potential social change agents.
“It has been a positive result not just for them but for their families and supporters outside the prison.’’