By the sweat of our brows

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The author says putting inmates at our corrections facilities to work within Fiji’s economic parameters is nothing short of progressive. Picture: FIJI CORRECTIONS SERVICE FACEBOOK PAGE

Many years ago on at least two separate occasions I drove with some friends from Sydney to Somersby on the Central Coast of New South Wales to visit an open air museum and theme park known then as Old Sydney Town, before it was converted into a movie location in 2003.

The set up was essentially a re- construction of Sydney in the founding days of Colonial settlement, going back to the early 1800s.

To visit Old Sydney Town was like walking forward through the main gate and backward into history, where you could lose yourself in the retro surroundings amidst actors dressed in period costumes, role playing out many varied scenarios.

There were these quaint little cottages all neatly lined up in a row along a gravelled laneway, not far from a school house further along, a tea shop, craft store and even a Magistrates Court in session across the way.

On the dusty streets soldiers patrolled and paraded whilst convicts either toiled or rebelled as residents went about their daily business, some of them walking, some on horseback, others in horse drawn carriage or bullock dray.

Further out of the town centre, sheep grazed obliviously in green paddocks surrounded by fences made of wood. In fact all of the buildings were made entirely of wood.

Occasionally a pistol duel would be played out or convicts punished in some way or another.

There were even a couple of pillories where visitors could stick their heads in for the sake of a good conversation piece photograph.

Walking about in Old Sydney Town was a surreal and memorable experience in itself, but there is one particular thing that stands out in my memory from all the rest. It was a little souvenir in the gift shop.

The gift shop itself was a large sturdy unpainted wooden building like all the rest but it had many shelves and counters. The items for sale ranged from books and historical information to postcards, hats, scarves, bags, flags, odd little pieces of memorabilia and many quirky imaginative tokens to mention but a few.

On a shelf in one corner however I saw what I thought was by far the most intriguing item of all.

It was a little wooden frame measuring no more than maybe four inches in height and length with a base width of an inch at the most.

Inside this frame were three tiny vials with cork caps, stabilised by indents at the base of the frame and encased within the whole structure so that although they were very visible, they couldn’t fall out.

They only way to remove them was to break the frame. The first vial contained red fluid, The second contained light yellow fluid, and the fluid in the third vial was colourless.

Each of them was labelled. The label on the red vial said ‘Convict Blood’, the second label on the vial containing the light yellow fluid said ‘Convict Sweat’ and the third label on the vial with the colourless fluid said ‘Convict Tears’.

On the surface of it, this little souvenir could have probably been no more than an amusing and imaginative little gift but to me at the time, it struck a chord.

The many thousands of convicts sent to Botany Bay for the term of their natural lives are since long gone and forgotten for the most part, yet their legacy lies in the history of Australia.

For a few moments I stood still with time, holding the little souvenir in my hand whilst I pondered a thought.

I had not so long ago that same day left a very large and predominantly concrete, glass, steel metropolis behind and driven down a multi lane bitumen highway so that I could step back in time to where it all started.

What I took for granted in my time I owed partially to those convicts who were removed from Britain’s overcrowded streets and prisons and transported to one of Mother England’s colonies for the term of their natural lives.

Having then been made to work under strict and harsh conditions, they would have literally shed real blood sweat and tears as they toiled under a sentence of hard labour in a foreign land.

Later on I discovered that one of those convicts was a part of my ancestry which since then has left me feeling even more humbled, grateful and saddened, but with a touch of pride.

Today, people queue up to move to Australia in search of a better life, without a second thought for the history behind it all.

Whilst it did take more than just those unfortunate convicts to build the great land ‘Down Under,’ and Australia’s history is far more detailed than that, we cannot ignore and should not forget the fact that these convicts were victims of circumstance at the time as well as mere instruments of nation building.

Alongside the free settlers and migrants that moved in freely from elsewhere over the last two hundred plus years, they helped make Australia the ‘Lucky Country.’ The bulk of that achievement was from sheer hard work, sacrifice and perseverance.

As the saying goes; ‘the harder you work the luckier you get’. That being said, I was reminded recently of the Musu Dovu initiative currently being run by the Fiji Corrections Services, which I think is a splendid and practical idea.

Putting prisoners to work within Fiji’s economic parameters is nothing short of progressive. Understandably, some prisoners may be either dangerous, high risk, or somehow incapable of manual labour but they would surely be in a minority.

Under proper supervision and surveillance I see no reason why the majority of prisoners in Fiji today cannot be brought out into the community to contribute to the nation building of this country.

Now I’m not suggesting for a single moment or by any stretch of the imagination that we ought to extract blood from these prisoners, or reduce them to tears in the process , but the sweat of their brows so to speak, could be put to good use in so many ways.

There are ditches and drains to be dug and cleaned, roadsides and highways to be built and kept clear of vegetation, eroding river banks and mangrove swamps to be rehabilitated, thousands of trees to be planted, buildings and bridges to be constructed, nationwide clean up campaigns to be undertaken, and so on and so forth.

The list is endless. Putting prisoners to work within the community is a part of the ‘Restorative Justice’ approach to implementing corrective services.

It is a far more creative and constructive method of managing prisoners rather than the ‘Retributive Justice’ approach which simply means ‘you do the crime you do the time’, where any given convicted person is removed from society for a stretch of time at the cost of the tax payer then released back into the community to reestablish himself or herself.

Unless they have truly reformed whilst in detention or have a supportive network and/ or ready resources waiting outside for them, most will probably end up back in prison for lack of support, direction and opportunity.

There are no winners in this case. Under the ‘restorative Justice ‘approach some prisoners may even get the chance to apologise and make peace with the victims of their crime, but that is not what I wish to focus on here.

That is something best left to professionals in that field of work. What I am advocating for is the employment of prisoners to do the work that needs to be done outside of the prison walls.

It ought to be an economic arrangement between the Fiji Correction Services and those authorities and institutions in both private and public sectors where some remuneration is paid for the services and work done by the prisoners.

At the end of the day, prisoners are earning their keep whilst in confinement and there may even be the possibility of them taking some of those earnings with them when they are released.

Another winner in this programme would be the tax payer! The current exodus out of this country by citizens seeking better opportunities abroad means we will be facing a manpower shortage before too long.

Those who remain may complain that the wage rate is too low. The only way that we can pay better wages is to increase productivity, and the only way to increase productivity is to have everybody put in an honest days work.

That is how a nation is built. Perhaps we can start with the prisoners and have them show the rest of us how to do it.

• DOE MILLER was born in Fiji but studied abroad and lived in Australian for a number of years before returning to Fiji. She is a businesswoman who is passionate about nation building from the grassroots to a municipal level. The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of this newspaper.