Building the conversation around how jailing is failing Australians
2 February 2024 at 9:00 am
Dr Mindy Sotiri has worked in criminal justice system settings as an advocate, community sector practitioner, activist, academic, and researcher for more than twenty five years. During this time, much of her work has been focused on advocacy around decarceration and building sustainable community-based and community led pathways outside of prison settings. Mindy completed her PhD in 2003 (looking at the purpose of imprisonment in NSW); completed a Churchill Fellowship in 2016; and is a senior visiting fellow at UNSW. Mindy lives and works on unceded Gadigal land, and is this weeks Pro Bono Australia change maker.
Describe your career trajectory and how you got to your current position.
I have spent close to thirty years working (in various capacities) to reduce the use of imprisonment in Australia. I grew up in a family that was very engaged politically and socially, partly because my Grandparents on my mothers side, were survivors of the holocaust (and specifically survivors of concentration camps; Gross-Rosen, Ravensbrück, Auschwitz). I note this in terms of my career and work trajectory, because for me, I think the (intimate) knowledge that people can be hurt and punished (imprisoned and worse) because of a particular set of structural and political circumstances has driven much of my work over the last few decades.
I studied social work at university, and it was clear to me, even as a very young social worker, that locking people up in the way that we do in Australia was failing on multiple levels. When I first started going into prisons in my early twenties, I was horrified by the misery of imprisonment but also amazed by the resilience and strength of the people who I met and worked with on release. I was also shocked by the numbers of people we incarcerate who shouldn’t be in prison. I still am! Again, it was very clear when working directly in post-release that there are far too many people in prison who have never had access to the kinds of opportunities, resources and supports in the community that all of us need. Too often there are also discriminatory systems and structures that funnel particular populations into prisons, and nowhere near enough pathways in the community that have the ability to disrupt this trajectory.
In the first few years of working with people leaving prison (at the amazing, long-standing NGO, the Community Restorative Centre – CRC), I also completed a PhD exploring the purpose of incarceration. I was never particularly drawn to academia, but I was very interested in trying to understand the systems in which I was working, and why we as a community were so drawn to imprisonment.
These questions have continued to be threaded throughout my work. I went on after six years at CRC to work for a few years in a number of other community sector organisations at the intersection of the justice system (including the Intellectual Disability Rights Service). During the chaotic early years of having little babies and kids, I cobbled together a bunch of different kinds of justice related work; research projects (at universities and in the community sector), teaching work (all up a decade or so teaching the fantastic social work students at UNSW), and advocacy projects (including work early on as part of the Aboriginal Disability Justice Campaign which advocated for an end to indefinite detention across Australia).
When the kids were a bit older and I was able to return to full time work, I returned again to the Community Restorative Centre where I worked for 8 years as the Director of Advocacy, Policy and Research. During this time I also had the opportunity to travel on a Churchill Fellowship to explore community led alternatives to incarceration internationally. I never imagined leaving CRC, because I loved the work (and the humans!) – and to me it felt very much like my community sector home. But when a job leading a new national organisation came up in 2020, I realised I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to contribute to work that was focused primarily on advocacy and campaign work at a national level to reduce incarceration. After nearly thirty years of working in advocacy, research, service delivery and social work in criminal justice, this gig leading the Justice Reform Initiative feels very much like a culmination of my work to date.
What does this role mean to you?
It feels very much like the most important thing I have had the opportunity to do! Which of course is terrifying, because the responsibility to use the opportunity well – and to bring about much needed change can feel huge. The Justice Reform Initiative is working to reduce incarceration around Australia and build a community in which disadvantage is no longer met with a criminal justice system response. Our advocacy and campaign work is focused on political advocacy, changing the public conversation, and stakeholder and supporter engagement. We also contribute to systems change, policy development, and research into evidence based alternatives and reducing imprisonment around Australia. The campaign is determinedly cross-party (we are working with Parliamentarians around Australia on all sides of politics to try and shift the political conversation) and we are also trying to change the public conversation. Many people around Australia (quite understandably) assume that prison works. But in fact all of the evidence shows very clearly that prison doesn’t work to deter crime; it doesn’t work to address the causes of crime; it doesn’t work to break cycles of disadvantage; and it in fact increases the likelihood of future criminal justice system involvement. It disproportionately impacts on First Nations people, and we over-imprison people with disabilities. And of course it is incredibly expensive. Our work is about proposing evidence based alternatives to the current failing system.
Take us through a typical day of work for you.
Over the last three years, I can honestly say there have been very few days that have been the same. But I usually start the day looking at media, and then working with the team to work up responses if we need to. There is then a mixture of political, media and stakeholder work, public facing work (lots of talking about why jailing is failing), writing (we put out a lot of submissions, reports, research and discussion papers), strategising (including figuring out how we can get all the work done that we want to with the limited resources we currently have!) supporting staff (14 incredible humans working remotely throughout Australia) and sorting out operational things. My work also involves a lot of travel – so a fair bit of the time, all of the above is happening from airports
What is the biggest challenge you’ve encountered in your career, and how did you overcome it?
Starting a new organisation (alongside incredible Chair and Founder, Robert Tickner) with a big ambitious target (to reduce incarceration by 50% by 2030) has been a HUGE and wild piece of work over the last few years. Challenging, stimulating, overwhelming, brilliant…all the things. Getting my head around every jurisdiction in Australia in terms of both justice system stuff and the political landscape has been massive; moving from 1 staff member (me!) to 15 in a fairly short time-frame was huge; the operational work involved in making sure that organisational governance is robust; navigating some of the ‘new kid in the sector’ argy bargy that most new orgs come across…all of it really. In terms of overcoming…I have been beautifully supported in all of this by the JRI Board, JRI staff, and a selection of amazing smart folk outside of work who have both listened to me talk all of this stuff through excitedly/relentlessly, and provided excellent advice.
If you could go back in time, what piece of advice would you give yourself as you first embarked on your career?
Two (related) things (quite specific to work in social change organisations).
Firstly. No matter where you are in your career, generosity of spirit (including acknowledgement of the excellent work of other people and organisations when it comes to trying to bring about social change, and reaching out when things are tough for someone) is so important. Even a brief note or a message of support can make a huge difference, not just to the person or people receiving it, but in terms of building up a movement and community of support.
Secondly, when working in advocacy and social change, try and gravitate towards the humans, spaces, movements and organisations that operate with generosity and integrity and allow you to stay focused on doing the work.
How do you unwind after work?
It’s not exactly unwinding, but outside of work, my other great love is writing and playing music- so a fair whack of my time outside of work is hanging out with my guitar. I also have two ginormous teenagers, and unwinding with those sweethearts usually involves watching telly and whatever they tell me we have to watch (most recently Game of Thrones and Succession).
What was the last thing you watched, read or listened to?
I am obsessed with the tune Nights Falling by Andrew Bird at the moment (and listen to it a LOT). But the most recent (and also a totally beautiful) tune on my walking to work play-list is ‘Little Bombs’ by Aimee Mann.