I have been visiting Blanche in hospital.
She is my second cousin.
She is old.
And unwell.
I fly home to Sydney tomorrow.
And I know I won’t see her again.

I can’t stop eating.
I go to the hospital and speak dreadful French to try and get information, and then speak broken English to Blanche who drifts in and out of consciousness. I hold her hand and I tell her how much her family loves her and how much I love her and how I wish I lived closer.

And then I go and buy éclairs and croissants and bread and cheese and falafel and drink wine.
And smoke Gauloises. Because it’s Paris, and I am taking moodiness seriously here.

My Grandma used to say that some of the Nazis were not so bad really.
We would fall about laughing.
Her schtick was funny holocaust stories. Her schtick was protecting us from the detail.

When I was younger, she used to tease me about my propensity towards serious monogamy.
‘Why you have just the ONE boy??? Why not you have six and keep them on a STRING???’

And here in Paris, I am sitting with Blanche who was only a little kid when she had to go into hiding, and missing the hell out of my Grandmother, and thinking about one boy versus six on a string.

And I am filled with a longing so big I’m not quite sure who to be.

I am resisting the temptation to look up old lovers online and figure out exactly how happy they are now.
I KNOW the signs of this kind of emptiness.
I know the dumb, punishing things I could do to try and fill it.

I am trying to imagine a family tree that wasn’t cut off so dramatically.
A family history that wasn’t defined by all who are missing.

My sister and I sometimes look at the kids we made and feel stupidly proud.
Sometimes I wish we’d had more babies though. Heaps more.
A coupla hundred or so maybe.
Zoe and I made five between us.
We made five beautiful babies.

But right now it still doesn’t feel like quite enough.
I’m wishing for more.
More Bands.
More Seidens.
More Weisenfelds.
I wish there were more people around Blanche’s bed holding her hand.

And maybe this is what every family member thinks when they are bedside like this.
Maybe dying feels lonely to the living no matter how big the family.

It’s just that I’m it right now.
The family.
Representing a handful of others in all the wrong parts of the world.
And I’ve only met Blanche twice before.
And I wish I’d known her better.

My grandparents were married in the Tarnow ghetto before they were sent to camps; Gross-Rosen, Ravensbrück, Auschwitz.

And here in Paris, on the back of five weeks away from home, I am dreaming about prisons in Australia and the US and the UK, alongside concentration camps in Europe between 1939 and 1945. I am dreaming of all kinds of escape.

And there’s no neat link here.
I guess there never is between tragedies.
Just broken lines. Little dots you can almost join.
For me I think it is mostly that I can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t know that people can get locked up, and worse, because of who they are.
And I can’t remember a time when this knowledge hasn’t terrified me. Propelled me.
Woken me the fuck up.
And oh man, I have been so AWAKE this trip.

But here in the Marais I am just eating. And smoking. And drinking. And sorta writing. And at night dreaming about prisons.

And I am farewelling Blanche, and all the others I never got to meet.
And I am thinking of my Grandmother.
Giza Band. With her tattooed wrist. And her perfect advice. And her table filled with the food I adored.
And her insistence that some of the Nazis were actually very nice.
She is everywhere in this work for me.
And she is everywhere in Paris in May.


‘Were you scared?’ painting by the nutso talented artist, Hélène Carroll. Giza Band’s daughter.
My beautiful mum.


London. Glasgow. Singing. SINGING.


I sat in a small rehearsal studio with some of the loveliest people in Glasgow last week.
Possibly some of the loveliest people in the world.
We played some tunes together. Talked about songs and structure. Cracked jokes about nuts key changes. All the things.
One guy had started playing bass only a few weeks earlier.
Others were working musicians.
But everybody brought something.
Alongside the noise of voices and instruments.
The act of singing together, of playing music in a room, and of writing together can be wildly connecting.
Not just in a therapeutic, hearts bouncing off the walls type way (although oy vey it can be ALL of that) but in terms of community.

And if into that space of making music, you invite people from a whole bunch of different backgrounds, including people who have spent time in prison, and people whose professional work is somehow prison related, and you ask that group to make something together, the impact can be profound. For everybody.
Oh man.
I guess I fell a bit in love with Glasgow.

Over the last five weeks, as I have sunk deeper into the question of ‘what to do’ about post-release, and recidivism I have found myself drifting off into territory that is situated somewhere kinda down the road, and round the corner a bit from where  I thought I was heading.

The whole point of my Churchill research project is to try and unpack what ‘best practice’ in post-release looks like. And although after all of these weeks of traveling, much of what I have grown to understand about the need for adequate resourcing and funding of basic transitional and reintegration services still holds, I guess what has become apparent is that it is not nearly enough to frame this conversation in terms of best practice in service provision.

So often – too often, services that provide support to people on release from custody are funded to fix people. To address offending behaviour. To rehabilitate. Every funding submission I have ever written for my organisation (and that’s about a trillion over the years) has in one way or another suggested that this underlies what it is that we want to do.

The individual rehabilitation of people on release from prison has become the template around which consensus between the funded community sector and government now exists. It is easy. It is the template that philanthropists understand. It is the template for every media story on post-release. It is the quick explanation at the pub. But it is too often a lazy explanation. And even when it’s not lazy, it is not nearly enough.

Because once again it situates offending at the centre of the conversation; as if understanding criminality and risk are the only explanatory tools we require to ease the grip of imprisonment on those groups who are relentlessly locked up.

There are structural and cultural threads that connect incarcerated people globally. There are threads of poverty, and disconnection and and colonisation and racism. The demographics of who goes to prison are not contested by anybody.   Yet when people are released we tend to ignore those threads. We adopt instead an individualised approach. We ask people to take full personal responsibility for their crime and for their imprisonment. If they’re lucky we might offer some service that is funded to assist them take this responsibility. And if they’re especially lucky, the services that are progressive might wrap concrete support around this process; housing, employment and education assistance.

And all of this is vital. People should take responsibility for their crimes. Services should be funded to assist this process. But at some point, we need to call bullshit on this being enough. We need to stop turning our backs on our structural understandings of imprisonment. And we need to start thinking carefully about what can happen at the level of community and culture to shift this. So that the process of reintegration stops just being an individual struggle and starts being something that all of us are part of.

Because if you stop framing the conversation in terms of curing and fixing and start thinking about it in terms of building community, you find yourself on very different ground. The kind of ground occupied by Vox Liminis the small but vital group of folk in Glasgow who are sitting in rooms in and out of prisons writing tunes together.

And I know, I KNOW, writing songs isn’t everyone’s bag (WEIRDOS). And playing music in a room isn’t going to solve the affordable housing crisis in Sydney, or resolve discriminatory employment practices. And there are frequently limits in terms of the scalability of grass roots community building projects. But these small projects are becoming for me, more and more significant in the landscape of reintegration services and practices.

Because of what we can learn from them about approach, social movement, and about building connection and community. There is something radical and deeply pragmatic in terms of reintegration about finding ways to create spaces so that the common ground that exists between people (Social workers! Formerly incarcerated people! Academics! Musicians!..) can expand into something larger than all we might imagine divides. (And beautiful! The tunes are freakin’ beautiful…check their work out here).


Providence. Washington. New York. Breath. Catching.


I flew out of JFK the day after the New York primaries.
Still burnt from the rally on Sunday.
Five hours in Prospect Park on a perfect spring day.
It felt for a moment like Sanders might win.
I shouted like an American when he walked on that stage.
Noisy enthusiasm in groups mostly makes me blush.
But I almost got there at that Brooklyn rally surrounded by 30,000 hopeful lefties all yelling for a different kind of democracy.

I couldn’t write in New York City.
I couldn’t properly THINK.

Partly it was flinging myself at New York the way I did.
The beautiful, noisy, exhausting bastard.

Partly it was the constant effort of trying to get my head around the contradictions of a mind-bendingly optimistic country that also majors in human despair.

And ya know…partly it was all the beer.

Danni and I walked through Harlem in the freezing rain last Tuesday. The part of Harlem where people are missing a lot of teeth. Waiting outside methadone clinics and court rooms and boarded up shopfronts.
All movement and spitting and unhinged shouting.
The cop outside the courthouse chastised us for standing too close to the court door. Then gave helpful directions to the best soul-food restaurant in Harlem.
When we thanked him he told us to stay safe.
So I told him to stay safe also.
He patted his gun and said, “I think I’ll be okay”.

I sat in on a community meeting on Thursday night.
Maybe 50 formerly incarcerated people, residents of an old New York reintegration service, crowded around a big white table.
The guest speaker was a New York Times journalist who had written an exposé of police and prison brutality. After he finished talking, people were invited to share their stories. And at some point I realised I was flinching. Repeatedly. Because every single person in that room had a story. Of horrific violence. In jails, prisons and police cells. Every. One.

There are services here that are disparaged by people who think they’re too soft;
“Hug-a-thug” programs they call them.
In amongst the mean.

In one service I spoke to a staff member, born and raised in Harlem who had spent over thirty years in and out of prison. He had been addicted and homeless and broken and then when he came out of prison a few years ago he was exhausted. He didn’t want to go back to prison. He wanted to do something else. He wanted to be something else.
He talked mostly about the worker who had helped him bust this cycle
Who had stuck around even when he messed up. Relapsed. Lost it. The usual.
He said the worker had showed him love.
And that he hadn’t seen a whole lot of love in his life.
And when he said that his eyes filled with tears.

The thing is that those hug-a-thug programs are doing something so basic.
And so profoundly right.
And mostly what that is, is that they do not see the work that they are doing as being with thugs.
Or criminals.
Or offenders.

They refuse to define someone solely by their crime or their history of incarceration. And in a country that has perpetual punishment and discrimination for formerly incarcerated people built into the systems of social security, housing, employment and welfare, this is not an easy position to hang on to.  There are still states in the US where a felony conviction means you can never vote.

For millions of people in North America, the worst thing you ever did can define the way you are treated for the rest of your life.

The hug-a-thug services get that if that is how you treat people, then that is what people will believe about themselves. And if that is what people believe about themselves (and they know how to make money through the economies of crime, and they know how to be in prison, and then they can’t get a legitimate job, and they can’t access social security or housing, and no-one is in their corner) it is pretty mad to expect people to navigate their way out of the criminal justice system and into the community on their own.

When identity is created through a lifetime of poverty, and social exclusion, and then cemented by state institutions which as it turns out regularly beat you up, finding a different way to be and live is really fucking hard.

But what the successful reintegration services also get is that if you stop defining someone by their offending or their past, and instead you ask them to tell you who they are outside of that, and who they want to be, then you have yourself a starting point for change.

And if  you add systemic advocacy, practical support and genuine hope to this mix, then the prospect of staying out of the criminal justice system can dramatically shift; from the realm of the miraculous into a space of concrete possibility.



Motown is deserted downtown.

It is snowing.

There is a gentleman’s club round the corner from my hotel.
It is called Legends.
Which is about the best name for a strip club ever.


It shut down because of a fire last year, and even though it was the premier gentleman’s club in Detroit (oh yeah- I’ve DONE my gentleman club research), it hasn’t opened its doors again.

The sign out the back is faded.
The car parks are empty.
There is steam coming up from the sewers.

The guy playing his trumpet in Greektown last night was playing the star wars theme. I mean he was good. But ya know.
It was the star wars theme. And this is Detroit.

The thing about urban decay is that although the ironic photo opportunities are overwhelmingly great, it is mostly pretty sad.

And quiet.

There’s stuff HAPPENING here of course.
Renewal stuff.
Midtown is being revived.
Young people are moving into loft apartments and opening vintage stores, and artists are doing cool things with abandoned houses.

But it’s harder to see the renewal in the poor neighbourhoods. The places that people who go to prison come from. And return to.

Viewing cities through this lens – this community sector, people coming out of prison and jail lens – is such a weird and weirdly perfect way to get to know a city.

The vague menace that scares outsiders like me gets given shape and form when you meet the people that live or work in the neighbourhoods that are broken. And fear gives way. In the beautiful way that fear usually does. When another human is sitting in front of you, drinking bad coffee and talking about their kids, and the 23 years they spent in prison for a crime they didn’t commit.

And you get to ask dumb questions. What did you guys actually DO on those corners? What do you DO when you get your bus ticket after 15 years in prison and you don’t have a home to go to? How do you keep working in this area without dying of heartbreak?

Poverty is not the same everywhere. Here poverty comes with no access to social security, it comes with snow, and guns, and a whole generation of young black men lost to incarceration. It comes with infrastructure so broken that the water supplies get poisoned. It comes with burnt down houses and abandoned skyscrapers. And it comes with the seduction of the ‘if-ya-try-hard-enough-you-can-be-who-you-want-to-be’ narrative that is all at once true and without a doubt the biggest lie America ever told.

We want so much for stories of success to be stories of individual tenacity and personal courage, and determination. And when stories ARE all of that, it is easy to assume that succeeding after prison should mostly be a matter of drawing on untapped internal resources.

But that’s actually all kinds of steam coming out of sewers.*

Poverty here is overwhelmingly black. And overwhelmingly criminalised.
And if there is a thread that runs between systems of incarceration in Australia and the US, it is surely the fact that we manage complex disadvantage and social and racial inequality in criminal justice settings.

I mean building individual capacity is obviously wildly important when helping someone coming out of prison, but what is very clear from visiting services and speaking with the stack of super smart people that work in this area, is that individualised programs can only work on any significant scale, if at the same time pragmatic structural barriers to re-entry and reintegration are acknowledged, and challenged, and addressed.

Oh. And the picture. THAT is me hanging with the ridiculously amazing Andre L Johnson. CEO of the Detroit Recovery Project.  His own story is remarkable. And the work of his organisation is off the charts. Walking alongside people. Building communities. Addressing the structural barriers.  All of it. They’re doing all of it.





IMG_0241The doors to the re-entry services in Chicago all have pictures of little black guns on them. Little black guns with big red lines through them.

Please don’t bring your weapons into this service okay?

Prisoner reintegration with no guns inside.
’cause ah, you know….
It’s probably a good place to start.

My hotel has a guy who stands outside and hands out umbrellas when it rains. To guests like me who have not thought hard enough about the weather.
He is the umbrella guy.
And this is fancy pants downtown.

There are not so many umbrella guys in the other neighbourhoods I’ve visited.
Guys, yes.
HEAPS of guys.
Hanging about. Doing guy loitering on street corner type things.

It’s so HARD here.
That’s what I keep thinking.
Heartbreakingly hard.
Everyone trying so hard in different ways. To get jobs. To make money. To get by.
And then to see the trajectory of those kids on those corners.

You can still get locked up for years for a non-violent drug offence.
You can still then come out of prison after all those years with nothing but a bus ticket back home.

But if the disaster of mass incarceration has produced anything, it might be the bunch of radically committed, smart and just-getting-the-hell-on-with-it people working with the organisations I’ve visited over the last few days. I’m basically deeply in love with everybody.

And the services. They do all of the stuff you might imagine would be critical for people coming out of prison; providing essential jobs training and placement,  housing support, drug and alcohol treatment, networked case-management, social enterprises, community building, peer-led support; basically finding a stack of ways for people getting out of prison to find a sense of belonging (and all of this in astonishing, documented, recidivism busting ways).

But that’s not it. It doesn’t stop at individual support. At the same time these organisations are also  jumping up and down. About criminal records and employment. About the state of prisons. About the lack of affordable housing. About the absence of drug treatment. About resourcing.  About bail. About diversion. And more. So much more. And this systemic advocacy happens in the most polite, strategic, non-alienating, jumping up and down ways possible. But there is no doubt that systems change  is core to what these organisations are about.

And oh man…When I am walking past those doors with the terrifying guns,  with my borrowed umbrella, through freezing (THIS IS SURELY NOT TRULY SPRING) Chicago, that combination of practical pragmatic support, in combination with EXTREME perseverance in shifting discriminatory structures has this  nerdy little social work heart beating hard.  So much to learn here. So. Much.


I am in the underground bunker of the Col Jones Aquatic Centre. In amongst the red brick, and corrugated iron and sandstone. I am crying from the chlorine. It is too hot. In this noisy freak of a cave. Listen. Jacob. BRONTE. LISTEN.

This neighbourhood is a cult. There is no doubt. A cult with a bright blue pool built under the ground.

It is March and Sydney doesn’t know the difference between Summer and Autumn anymore. I am half watching the pool. My children lack buoyancy. I have thought this for years. All those lessons. A zillion dollars or so easily. And STILL so sink-y.

On the drive home Dom is talking about robbery. He has an idea to help the robbers. To improve their chances of evading capture. He is by nature a helpful kid. He says robbers should go swimming before they go robbing. That way their fingers would go wrinkly from the water and it would make their prints much harder for the police to trace.

I am thinking about prisons. Hotels. Flights. Window seats. Meetings in Detroit and Chicago. I am thinking about winter coats. I am planning for the first time in my life on being the sort of woman who wears a smart winter coat. I am aiming for charmingly windswept. Maybe there’ll be lipstick. I don’t know. There is no telling how transformative independent travel might be for me aesthetically. At the very least, my hair will less stupid.

I am thinking about the hemisphere where autumn is spring, and spring looks like winter. I am thinking about all those weeks ahead of no swimming lessons, or making sandwiches, or tussling over homework. And my heart is aflutter. ACTUALLY aflutter. And I am driving and laughing at Dom’s robbers splashing about for hours at the local pool before they bust their robber moves, and I am thinking about what to cook for dinner, and I can see the tops of my boys heads, their messy, damp hair in the rear view mirror. And then I am crying from the chlorine all over again.