Vickie Roach spent much of her adult life in prison. Fourteen years since her last conviction, the Yuin woman is not a prison reformer – she’s an abolitionist. By Jenny Valentish.

Vickie Roach and Women Transforming Justice

Yuin woman Vickie Roach, of  the Women Transforming Justice project.
Yuin woman Vickie Roach, of the Women Transforming Justice project.

The irony of Vickie Roach being an advocate for Aboriginal women in the criminal justice system is that until she first went to adult prison at 17, she’d thought she was Italian. She had been fostered into a white Christian family in Carramar, a western suburb of Sydney. She gives one of her uproarious laughs. “They let me believe I was a wog.”

When the truth came out, she knew nothing about her culture. “The Aboriginal girls I’d met in the kids’ home had been really scary. I had to confront all these beliefs that I’d taken on from the people who raised me. That was difficult.”

Roach is a Yuin woman, born to a Stolen Generations mother. Her life followed the script of one who has experienced intergenerational trauma: a runaway at nine; heroin user by 14, with her habit supported by sex work in Kings Cross. Between 1976 and 2003, she had 125 convictions or findings of guilt made against her. In 2004 she went to jail for the final time. While imprisoned at the Dame Phyllis Frost Centre in Victoria, she attained a master’s degree and got politicised: with the help of the Human Rights Law Research Centre, she successfully overturned the Howard government’s ban on prisoners voting in elections.

These days, Roach is a respected historian and writer, and has joined the steering committee of the Women Transforming Justice project for Darebin Community Legal Centre. Alongside the likes of deputy chief magistrate Jelena Popovic and psychologist Helen Barnacle, who in 1980 received the longest drug-related prison sentence for a woman in Victoria but won the right to raise her daughter inside, Roach will be responding to the crisis of women’s mass incarceration in Victoria, in particular that of Aboriginal women.

At her most conciliatory, Roach, who is speaking on the topic at Dark Mofo this weekend, will recommend that cultural sensitivity training be compulsory for anyone working in the criminal justice system. In a less polite mood she’ll declare the entire system needs dismantling. She’s particularly reticent about Aboriginal people becoming “well-meaning instruments of the colonisers”. Of the latter, she cites the Koori Court, a division of the Magistrates’ Court of Victoria, introduced by the Labor government in 2002. An Indigenous defendant can choose to appear before it if they plead guilty, and legalese is swapped for stern lectures by Elders. But Roach thinks the process is demeaning.

“The design of the court didn’t come by us,” she says, “we were just invited to train in how to facilitate it. It’s putting a black face on the same old white justice system. You’re still going to jail anyway, after that browbeating. They say all these fluffy words about it being inclusive and it’s a crock of shit. I was reading the comments made by Elders in the court and thinking, ‘If anybody spoke to me like that I’d tell them to fuck right off.’ ”

Roach has been in violent relationships. She will argue that Aboriginal men are so displaced from their traditional roles that their despair can turn to anger – and that punitive measures will not tackle the root of the problem. “I’d recommend anything over a jail sentence,” she says. “In prison they become subhuman. There are avenues whereby we can help the couple have a healthy relationship. Putting someone in jail damages the kids, damages the woman if she feels guilty.”

The most promising alternative she has come across is dadirri, which translates as “deep listening”. “It’s a Central Desert tradition of going out in the bush and reconnecting with country and culture.” While dadirri is a therapeutic technique, Emeritus Professor Judy Atkinson – who wrote the 2002 book Trauma Trails, Recreating Song Lines: The Transgenerational Effects of Trauma in Indigenous Australia – recommends that deep listening and non-intrusive observation should also be used by academics as a form of culturally appropriate research.

For her part, Roach thinks dadirri is complementary to narrative therapy, which was created by social worker Michael White and therapist David Epston in the early 1980s, then further developed with Aboriginal community workers in Adelaide, such as Aunty Barbara Wingard and Jane Lester. It challenges a “language of deficit” – a reproach such as “I’m a terrible mother” – by looking at the individual’s life in the context of enormous social upheaval, and by building on themes of resilience and achievement.

“We’ve been marginalised for so long, but at the same time they’re saying, ‘You can’t enjoy any of the benefits of participation, but you must comply,’ ” Roach says, pointing to restrictions on the sale and consumption of alcohol in the Northern Territory’s Tennant Creek as an example. In white communities where domestic violence is similarly an issue, local authorities are more likely to green light a bottle-shop superstore. “It’s discrimination to say, ‘You’re white, you can buy alcohol. You’re black, you can’t.’ ”

Instead, Roach feels, the emphasis should be on healing, connection and opportunity. She cites Rat Park, the 1978 study by psychologist Bruce Alexander, which demonstrated that rats put into stimulating environments would ignore proffered drugs. “It has to be a holistic approach like that. You can’t just say, ‘You’ve got to stop drinking.’ Even though the consequences might be losing your kids or going to jail, it serves a very important purpose. It deadens the pain and it takes you somewhere else.”

When considering early intervention, Roach reckons war stories from reformed drug users are laughingly ineffectual. “Kids couldn’t give a rat’s arse about cautionary tales,” she says. “It makes me cringe to think of trying to inspire young people into not taking drugs because all these terrible things happened to me. Terrible things happen to you whether you take drugs or not.”

Roach’s emancipation came through education and watching women who led by example, such as community lawyer Amanda George, Sisters Inside founder Debbie Kilroy, and Annie Nash, the executive officer of Flat Out, a support system for women leaving prison. One woman who particularly had an impact was Antoinette Braybrook, the chief executive of Djirra, formerly the Aboriginal Family Violence Prevention and Legal Service in Victoria. Braybrook created the Sisters Day Out program that tours Victoria – including jails, which was where Roach first encountered it. At these pamper days, women are treated to manicures, massage, reiki and hair styling, but it’s also a chance to engage with support services.

“A lot of Aboriginal women won’t go to mainstream agencies,” Roach says. “Here [the service providers] aren’t in booths giving out pamphlets; they’re sitting with the women as they’re getting their nails done, engaging with them. It’s a supportive, nurturing environment, which a lot of us don’t experience very often.”

Since experiencing Sisters Day Out for herself, Roach has worked with Braybrook, evaluating Djirra’s Young Luv program. “It helps young women understand what domestic violence is, not just ‘Does he hit you?’ ” she explains. She can understand that need for nuance. Thinking back to her own abusive relationship, she says, “It was more a case of, ‘Well, you must like it if you stay.’ There wasn’t much insight beyond that. No, I didn’t find that very helpful either.”

As she points out, “self care” is a white middle-class concept. “Self care for me was staying out of my boyfriend’s reach.” Once more, she cracks up laughing.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 9, 2018 as "Call to heal".

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