‘I got sick and tired of surviving, I wanted TO LIVE’
Jason, a career criminal who wants to leave a life of thuggery and drug addiction behind him, is one of many people being given hope by an innovative program. Kate Campbell reports
We pulled everything together for the kid. But we put bubs to bed one Saturday, and she didn’t wake up.
“EVERY time I went to jail I deserved to go — jail was built for people like me.”
Jason does not sugar coat where he has come from. A history of violence, crime and drug addiction to “whatever would give me a kick” from his early teenage years led to him becoming “institutionalised” and turning his back on society.
Despite growing up in a caring adopted family in which he had “ample opportunity to succeed”, Jason says he had a “genetic misfire” in him that lured him to the “lucrative” criminal world.
His choice of “career” has seen him locked up for 18 of his 39 years for many and varied serious crimes committed interstate.
“Manslaughter — they tried to get me for murder, but they dropped it to manslaughter, I didn’t mean to bash a bloke to death, it just happened — armed robbery, drug dealing, you name it,” Jason frankly explains his rap sheet, while stressing he’s “never bashed a woman”.
He learnt from a young age that life in jail was “easier than what it was cracked up to be”.
“Jail just become home, everything was done for me there
. . . we ran it, it was our playground, it was where we made money and recruited more people,” he said.
“When I first got out of jail I couldn’t walk down the street without fighting. It’s that alpha male dominated world, only the strong survive.
“Being released from custody (was a low point) because it scared me, society scared me. I didn’t know how to live out here, I didn’t know what to do or how to do it, pay bills or go shopping.
“I get out . . . and three hours of being released after another huge stretch, I’m put back to work . . . and I just had enough, and I said, ‘Nah, stuff it’.”
There are few redeeming features in Jason’s past, but he has hope for an honest life away from the criminal underworld — thanks to finding love with Kirsty, his partner of 16 months and another troubled soul with a desire to turn over a new leaf — as well as the efforts made to help the couple get their life back on track by community services organisation Ruah, through its pilot program Choices.
What Jason had had enough of was the “eat you up and spit you out” reality of the criminal world and the fact he was repeatedly throwing his freedom away at will.
He said he wanted to know what a “legit” life felt like, one of paying taxes and going to the local pub or walking down the street without getting into a fight.
“Kirsty was my saviour, she was my moment of clarity. I didn’t want this to be my legacy,” Jason said. “I got sick and tired of surviving, I wanted to live.
“I’m over looking over my shoulder, being everybody else’s gopher . . . to do what I was doing you can’t have a conscience and if you get a conscience you can’t do it no more.”
Their chaotic life was achieving some normalcy when the couple moved to WA and settled in Kalgoorlie earlier this year, where they lived in a nice home and Jason found work concreting. They soon welcomed their baby daughter Ty’esha, and life for once looked bright, but rock bottom was just around the corner.
“We pulled everything together for the kid,” Jason said. “But we put bubs to bed one Saturday, and she didn’t wake up.”
His two-month-old baby’s death, believed to be caused by Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, sent Jason spiralling into a relapse. “Material goods come and go, but the love of a child . . . we will take that to our graves,” Jason said. “I relapsed, and started drinking, fighting and doing what I do. I wanted to go back to my old life, but I couldn’t because Kirsty needed me and I needed Kirsty.”
The grief-stricken couple abandoned their new life and wound up homeless in Perth, but a visit to Royal Perth Hospital’s emergency department to treat Jason’s broken ribs sustained in a bar fight provided an unexpected glimmer of hope. Kirsty asked Ruah for help, and Ruah came to their rescue.
“They moved heaven and earth for us, we’re forever in their debt . . . it’s organisations like Ruah that give you hope to continue on to the next day,” he said. “If it weren’t for these guys we wouldn’t be sitting here.”
Over the past year, Ruah’s Choices pilot program, a brainchild of the WA Primary Health Alliance, has placed peer workers — people with their own “lived experiences” with “psychosocial issues” mainly related to homelessness, mental health and drugs and alcohol — in the EDs of RPH and Rockingham Hospital, WA Police’s Perth watch house and from next month will be present in the Drug Court and Perth Magistrates Court.
For Jason and Kirsty, Ruah helped them with emotional support, as well as financially with their bond to secure a roof over their heads, food and clothing.
Between last November and this July, Choices peer workers interacted with 459 people at RPH and in the watch house, and 227 of those became clients.
Choices program co-ordinator Talia van Niekerk, from Ruah, said the pilot program consisted of 10 peer workers and three senior community workers, and had an aim of reducing repeat presentations in EDs and the justice system from people suffering a range of “psychosocial” distress.
“What we found is people were coming into the ED for help when they didn’t have anywhere else to go. That’s where people assumed they were going to get all their help from, so why not put a service in there that might be able to meet that need,” she said.
“We’re not, ‘Well we tried once, we’re not going to give you a second shot’, it’s, ‘We’ll give you 100 shots if that’s what it takes before you’re ready’.”
Ms van Niekerk said a hospital ED, police holding cell or court house were intimidating environments for a vulnerable person and having someone not part of that system sit down for a chat could make an enormous difference. Funding for the pilot program ends next June, but there is hope it will be allowed to continue beyond that.
RPH ED consultant Dr Amanda Stafford said before Choices moved in, staff in the ED felt a sense of “helplessness” and “dissatisfaction” that they couldn’t help many people coming in with their underlying psychosocial issues, which she estimated was about one in 20 presentations.
Now with Choices on board, Dr Stafford said: “We’re really looking not at bandaids, but really at healing the wound.
“What it helps with is easing the burden of staff in the ED that they can be happy that when a patient leaves they actually have a good plan in place — if that person would like to do it.”
Better future: Jason is on a new path after meeting his partner Kirsty and taking part in Ruah’s Choices program at Royal Perth Hospital. Picture: Daniel Wilkins