The Torch

5 July 2017

Ex-MMA champion Robby Wirramanda looks like he could snap you in half with a sidelong glance if he so desired. A mountain of a man, you cannot help but notice his tribal tattoos that snake down both arms and his perfectly round, shaved head. Wirramanda’s rugged exterior, however, belies his kind-hearted nature, immense artistic talent and deep pride for his Indigenous heritage.

A part of the Wergaia Nation of northern Victoria, he is quick to note that he has been fortunate to have learnt his elders’ stories and traditions from a young age.

“I still live on the country where my ancestors walked for 40,000 plus years. I’m still living here on my grandmother’s country,” he proudly boasts.

However, it wasn’t so long ago that the Chinkapook native was far away from his traditional home, locked in a prison cell thanks to a drug trafficking conviction. Confined for three and a half years, Wirramanda had become trapped in the insidious cycle of incarceration so common amongst Indigenous Australians.

Victorians with Indigenous backgrounds are 12 times more likely than non-Indigenous Victorians to be imprisoned during their life time, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Nearly 90 per cent are likely to reoffend. These figures are a part of a nationwide trend which sees first nation Australians hold the tragic distinction of being the most incarcerated people on the planet (per capita). The ABS reports that 2,346 out of every
100, 000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are imprisoned, a figure which is almost six times higher than the imprisonment rate of African Americans in the United States.

Despite royal commissions and vast sums of money being thrown at the problem, more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders continue to be thrown in jail than ever before. However, a new program that seeks to keep Indigenous ex-offenders out of jail by helping them connect to their culture and heritage is showing promise in Victoria.

Barkindji artist Kent Morris is the founder and CEO of The Torch, an innovative program that works with Indigenous men and women that are either currently incarcerated or have recently been released from prison. The project is ostensibly just an art program for prisoners, something that has been common in correctional facilities for decades around the world. However, The Torch does so much more for its 300 participants.

“The program’s really built around taking in information about language groups and cultural identity,” Morris explains. “It’s about learning your culture, expressing it and maintaining a cultural practice. Then to share that practice with the broader community. To develop those stories and put them out in the world for people to connect with.”

The state-sponsored initiative was instrumental for Robby Wirramanda’s rehabilitation by helping him reconnect to his heritage, while also giving him a forum to rediscover his childhood passions of art and music. He also praised The Torch for always being there to support him on a personal level.

“The Torch are always there for you. For a yarn, for support. They’ve always got someone there,” Wirramanda exclaimed. “As well as that, just to see other people doing well is great. It really does give people hope to believe that they can make a bit of a living [after prison].”

Wirramanda is now making a living by selling his art on the outside, thanks to his range of paintings and sculptures that fetch thousands of dollars each. Many of his works depict swarms of dragonflies, a symbol which has deep cultural and personal meaning for him.

“When I was younger, my nan always said that the dragonfly was a symbol of change and good seasons ahead. It’s also for me a symbol of rebirth. The dragonfly was a really big part of my journey in prison, as well as on the outside,” he said.

Initial state government evaluations of the program found that there was a 53 per cent reduction in recidivism amongst ex-prisoners who were involved with The Torch. Moreover, the evaluation also found that men who had been involved in these arts and culture activities were more engaged with subsequent programs that dealt with substance rehabilitation and vocational training. Morris attributes the success of the program to the sense of achievement, pride and self-respect that it instils in its culturally deprived participants.

Morris explains that a majority of the inmates prior to starting at The Torch have very little idea of their family’s cultural heritage. He describes it as “that uncomfortable feeling you have when you don’t know who you are, and you don’t belong anywhere.” Fixing this unconscious feeling of unworthiness, he believes, is integral to rehabilitating many Indigenous inmates.

After gaining access to the archives at the Koorie Heritage Trust, men and women in the program are taught about their family tree, family history, culture and community. From there, they are encouraged to paint the traditional stories of their forbears by evoking traditional imagery from their own tribe. This process is often the beginning of a stark transformation, and a chance for inmates to gain confidence within themselves.

“It’s great when they see that they have the potential to do something positive, to reconnect where often they had not thought that it was possible. There’s a lot of shame associated with being Aboriginal in this country. One fella said to me ‘I was ashamed of my culture’. It’s just shocking. He was able to put his cultural identity back together, express it through art and he’s now on release and doing well,” Morris recounted.

Wirramanda now ensures that his children also remain connected to the traditions and stories of the Wergaia Nation. He aims to foster a keen sense of pride and self-respect in his three boys by helping them maintain a close connection to the land of his ancestors, and by leading them away from the path that he once followed.

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