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Aboriginal jail destined to be out of work
Aboriginal Superintendent Mike Macfarlane at the new West Kimberley Regional Prison. Picture: Flip Prior/The West Australian

About 6km south of Derby, close to the highway, a giant, hollowed-out boab tree with a “door” cut into its trunk stands as a grim reminder.

In the late 1890s, shackled Aboriginals arrested for crimes they did not understand would be crammed into it overnight, squashed and sweltering while on their way to Derby for sentencing.

At the sprawling new West Kimberley Regional Prison a stone’s throw away, Supt Mike Macfarlane looked across a grassed oval to a cluster of cottages with views of the countryside through an impenetrable but semi-transparent fence.

Birds trilled in spiky boabs dotted among the concrete and steel buildings painted to echo the landscape — bright yellow, bark-grey and green. Red dirt and spinifex stretch as far as the eye can see.

“The idea was to resemble a community in the Kimberley,” Mr Macfarlane said. “If the fence wasn’t there, you’d think it was a brand new town.

“You’re in a negative environment but we’re trying to make it as positive as we can. This is how far we’ve come.”

The first inmates in this, Australia’s first jail designed for Aboriginals, will arrive on October 22.

Mr Macfarlane, part Noongar and part Scottish, will supervise them with 115 staff, a fifth of whom are indigenous.

He is not the first Aboriginal jail superintendent — that was Philip Brown, his old boss at the Alice Springs Correctional Centre and “a good mentor and role model”.

But Mr Macfarlane is one of a handful of senior indigenous men in the justice system helping drive a radical new approach to Aboriginal incarceration in a bid to cut appalling rates of recidivism.

After almost 30 years working for governments inside and outside prison gates, he has plenty of experience. Raised in Perth, Mr Macfarlane went to school at Tuart Hill and became an orderly at King Edward Memorial Hospital.

He became a liaison officer with WA Police in Perth, Greenough and Wyndham, helping defuse Aboriginal feuds before moving into corrective services about 20 years ago.

His career took him to Bunbury, Casuarina Prison and Roebourne before he and his wife moved to (Alice Springs for 8½ years.

He worked his way up to superintendent of the town’s correctional facility, which had a 90 per cent tribal Aboriginal population.

Through the “bush telegraph”, he heard about the new Derby prison, threw his hat in the ring and got the call two years ago.

Mr Macfarlane agrees it is unfortunate a jail had to be built specifically for Aboriginal people but knows it is needed.

The WA Department of Corrective Services says Aboriginals make up 39.7 per cent of the jail muster and are locked up at twice the national rate.

In remote areas in particular, Aboriginals remain severely disadvantaged with alcohol abuse high and employment low, meaning (prison for many seems destined to be a revolving door.

Chief Justice Wayne Martin recently spoke of the tragic over-representation of Aboriginals in the WA justice system, saying it was getting worse despite “substantial public resources”.

He pointed to Mr Macfarlane’s appointment and the new jail for setting a benchmark for humane and culturally appropriate incarceration among the few positive steps towards reducing recidivism and achieving behavioural change.

Mr Macfarlane had little to do with the jail’s campus-style layout, which was planned years ago, but has plenty of input into its services.

The main focus is training and employment to break the crime cycle as he strives to give inmates the best chance of success outside. It starts with basic life skills — healthy eating, cleaning, cooking, hygiene and budgeting — in the hope the lessons will stick.

Up to 150 medium or minimum-security inmates, including 30 women, will live in 20 six-person cottages with others of the same tribal language or family group.

As well as basic meals, each cottage will get a small weekly allowance for food to cook with tutors.

“We try to reflect society … some people have lived rough most of their life,” Mr Macfarlane said.

To reflect their communities, inmates can cook over open fires and go to culturally important sites.

Structured days include education or vocational training in skills such as welding, small engine maintenance and food preparation to build employment prospects, pride and a sense of purpose.

Aboriginal elders can interact with inmates to help them integrate back into their communities.

Mr Macfarlane says he learnt long ago to cope with the emotion of locking up his own people.

He knows how to walk the “thin brown line” and prefers to focus on being a positive influence.

On November 1, Corrective Services Minister Murray Cowper will declare the jail open.

International researchers have visited and were enthusiastic about the jail’s prospects. They will watch the results closely.