Breaking the prison cycle


Clifton is a 35 year old Martu man.  He lives in a remote Martu community several hours from Newman.  He works as a ranger and is heavily involved in the running of his community. He is charismatic, clever and full of ideas.  He is one of the most visionary people you could want to meet.  

“I’ve been there.  I know what it’s like.  It’s not going to be easy.  There are too many of my brothers and sisters in lock-up. . . But we gotta change this story for Martu” - Clifton 

Yet Clifton’s life has been a series of adverse events.  On three different occasions he has found himself in the state’s prison facilities.  In total he has spent over 3 years locked up.  A long time for a young man with so much to offer. 

Unfortunately his story is not an unusual one among his peers.  In fact, the level of incarceration for young Martu men is so high that it would be hard to find those that haven’t been to prison.  The guys talk about following a pathway that all too often ends up back in lock-up.  For a whole range of reasons, this is becoming the norm for a generation of Martu.  And this is something that Clifton is now keen to do something about. 

Through the Martu Leadership Program (MLP), Clifton wants to work with his peers to change the lock-up story.  And he’s not on his own, he’s got the fifty other participants on the MLP looking to help him do it.

Last month, for the first time, Clifton and two other participants from the program entered the regional prison, the same place he had been sent to in previous years.  But this time he had been invited.  I recall seeing Clifton sitting on the bench before entering the facility. “I’m not feeling well.  I don’t think I can go in there”.  I thought he was going to be sick.  Then he stood up and said “Let’s go.”  And in we went.

What happened next was one of the most powerful descriptions of the Martu Leadership Program that I have seen.  It was told almost wholly in Martu language to 16 of the Martu inmates.  Clifton and his peers spoke without pause for 1 ½ hours.  They Described the program, what they were learning about the mainstream world and how their experience of the program made them feel.  They inspired the prisoners and guards alike.

Next month we have been invited back.  This time there will be eight of us visiting the facility and the prisoner officers are saying the inmates are queuing for the opportunity to hear from Clifton and the team.  

It is early days but it’s fair to say that Clifton and other participants from the Martu Leadership Program have made an impressive start to taking on one of the biggest challenges facing remote aboriginal people in Australia today: changing the cycle of trouble and incarceration and the impact that has on them and their families’ lives.