Getting locked up in jail doesn't rank high on most people's agenda. However, a local charity has convinced hundreds of celebrities, corporate suits, media and the public to become prison inmates once a year as part of its campaign to support disadvantaged young people and youth at risk around Australia.
The annual Bail Out event hosted by Whitelion attempts to expose everyday Australians to life on the 'inside' for young offenders. Along with activities that simulate prison life, participants also experience court proceedings, sentencing, incarceration and meet youths who have been through the justice system and hear their stories.
This nationwide event raises much-needed donations to help young people within the youth justice system break the cycle of disadvantage and not repeat their offending behaviour. Assistance from Whitelion comes in the form of role modelling, mentoring, outreach services, employment, indigenous programs and prevention programs in rural and metropolitan communities. While it costs the justice system some $200,000 per youth per year, Whitelion's programs get offenders back on the straight and narrow at approximately $10,000 per youth.
Bail Out kicked off in Perth followed by Sydney and Adelaide before arriving at the Old Melbourne Gaol on 26 May. I managed to speak with Mark Watt, CEO of Whitelion to find out more about the organisation, its efforts and the event in Melbourne.
Photo courtesy of Whitelion
Lionel: How did it all start?
Mark: In 1999 I founded Whitelion. I was a manager at Melbourne's youth detention centre throughout the 90s and during my time here I recognised a very obvious 'cycle' – young people who were released would end up back on remand shortly after and that is what inspired Whitelion. I noticed a lack of post-release services to assist those leaving detention.
Since 1999 we have merged with other youth agencies to grow our organisation and generate more efficient operations. Open Family Australia, Stride Foundation and Balga Detatched Youth Work Project have all come on board and together we have 110 years' experience and can help young people off the streets, out of jail and into a job.
Lionel: Who are the beneficiaries supported by Whitelion?
Mark: At Whitelion we support the youths of Australia who are going in and out of the youth detention system, or who are on the path to eventually ending up there. We provide a range of services and support that can change the lives of youths at risk. We find young people jobs, provide them with positive adult role models, assist in rehabilitation and find supportive homes. Throughout it all, we monitor each individual's progress and development to ensure they never fall back into the same negative cycle.
We focus on those aged between 10 to 25 years and live in one of our catchment areas where we are able to provide support. More specifically we focus on those who are a) living in a residential unit or foster care and planning on leaving said care, b) worried by their risk taking behaviour, c) living on the street or in trouble, d) have been to court, on a community order or in custody, e) Have stopped attending school and would like to return or look for alternative options and/or f) unable to get work even if they want to.
Whitelion Street Outreach Team in Wyndham / Photo courtesy of Whitelion
Mark: Disadvantaged youths who are in the system, leaving the system, entering the system or on the wrong path can be caught in a dangerous cycle. These young people are not given the same opportunities or support that could assist them in making a positive change to their lives and we constantly ask why? I believe everyone deserves a second chance. Without individual support and funding these young people struggle to make effective changes and in turn live the rest of their lives with the same negative habits. Whitelion gives all young people at risk the opportunity to be happy and successful and ultimately have a brighter future.
Mark: Our major supporters include Schweppes, KFC and City West Water. Over the years we have received some level of government funding and won a few government tenders. Our main channels of support are from our partners and public involvement in fundraising campaigns like Bail Out and donations.
Mark: The Annual 'Bail Out' is Whitelion's national fundraising and awareness campaign, providing a unique opportunity to step into the shoes of a young person that has been disconnected. Since its humble beginnings in Melbourne in 2005, Bail Out has grown to become a truly national campaign across Australia. Now Bail Out takes place throughout the months of April, May and June in Perth, Sydney, Adelaide, Melbourne and Hobart. The idea of the fundraiser is to give people an insight into what it is like to be incarcerated and why these young people have ended up there.
Lionel: What do you hope to achieve nationwide with this annual campaign?
Mark: Our main goal is to raise awareness nationwide and raise vital funds for our programs. It is so important for more people to understand the problem at hand and how they can make a huge impact. It only takes one person to change a young person's life. Everyone is capable of making that difference. It is not only about raising funds but supporting these young people through our mentoring programs. We are always looking for more volunteers and mentors.
Mark: Melbourne was the original home of 'Bail Out', so it holds a lot of memories and achievements. We can't wait for Melbourne 'Bail Out' on May 26th. We see it being a great success as it has been for many years. This year we are excited that Brent Harvey 'Boomer' from the North Melbourne Footy Club and players from the WNBL team, the Melbourne Boomers are involved. It should be a fantastic event.
Lionel: Why should the Melbourne public support this campaign?
Mark: 'Bail Out' is a one-off opportunity. Nowhere else can you be locked up for the night, finger-printed, see a mock trial and hear countless inspiring and emotional stories of people's personal experience being a youth at risk and going through the juvenile detention system. We are committed to making a real difference with the youth of today and with the public's help we will be able to increase the number of people we can help.
Each year in Australia there are more than 46,000 child protection cases, estimated 32,400 young people between 12 to 24 years who are homeless, almost 36,000 young people in out-of-home care and 14,500 young people in the court system.To lend a helping hand and get involved in Whitelion's Bail Out, simply register online, raise a minimum bail or donation of $1,000 and get ready for a jail experience like no other.