Human rights advocacy

In 2014, he was presented with an award for Courage and Commitment to Social Justice and Human Rights at the National Indigenous Human Rights Awards.

He founded World, Humanity, You (WHY) – 1990 to 1993.

In 2004, he founded Students Without Borders firstly at Murdoch University. During its time, Students Without Borders developed into the largest student volunteer organisation in the nation, with scores of community programs with social reach far and wide. Students Without Borders was recognised with numerous awards for student development outreach and community programs by the Australasian Campus Unions Managers Association (ACUMA). Students Without Borders was recognised at the 2008 Western Australian Department of Community Services Awards. Students Without Borders was a finalist in three of the eight categories, winning two of the categories.

 

As part of Students Without Borders, Georgatos established the Western Australia wide 8Ball recycling program, which during its time would become the largest recycler of computers in the nation. Gerry Georgatos while at Murdoch University became aware of a huge unmet need of students, particularly mature age students who were without computers. He also realised that a significant proportion were computer illiterate. So he drove the recycling program to meet the need. In addition he developed computer literacy programs. From 2004 to 2010, 55,000 refurbished computers were donated. Nearly 5,000 were donated to schools and communities in developing nations.

 

Gerry Georgatos who sat on the University’s Academic Council and Senate (Board) organised for student transcript merits for students who refurbished computers for the 8Ball program and also for students who volunteered and made significant contributions to Student Without Borders programs. Students Without Borders also included volunteers from the wider community.

 

“To the spirit of this organisation notions of social justice, community solidarity and activism are fundamental. Students Without Borders is the idea that education should be much more than what we learn in the class room, and much more than getting a piece of paper. It is about what we can learn from engaging with the world around us, and what we can give back to that world. Students Without Borders is about volunteerism and helping to make the world a better place,”

 – Claire Middlemas, 2008 Murdoch Guild President.

 

Gerry Georgatos was a former Education Vice President and Guild President of Murdoch University. He was the General Manager of the Murdoch University Student Guild from mid-2006 to Christmas 2009. Gerry Georgatos was appointed manager at the time student unions were entering Voluntary Student Unionism (VSU). However under his management he guided the Guild from a key financial concern to stability and saved jobs while at the same time improving working conditions and remuneration for his colleagues.

 

He was popular at Murdoch University but was often a polarising individual at the campus particularly during his time on the University Senate. “We were not put on this earth to misspend our days, what must be said should be said, what must be done should be strived for,” Gerry Georgatos.

 

He sat on the University’s peak academic planning body, Academic Council for 5 years to 2010 and for three years on the Senate (Board of Directors) to end 2009. His focus was access to education for the disadvantaged, student retention, student hardship relief and community development.

 

With Paddy Cullen, an OXFAM WA manager, they developed the Social Justice Centre at Murdoch University.

 

“I have a lot of students who email me every week saying they want to get involved … in making a difference, but they don’t know how. This centre is a great opportunity for local organisations to come together and to provide information on the work that they do, the issues that are facing the world at the moment, and how we can get involved as students.”

  • Vicky Edwards, Former SWB Administrator.

 

“Gerry has been an incredible force for positive change making a huge difference to student life at Murdoch and to thousands of people around the globe that have benefited through the work of Students Without Borders. Gerry has managed to make the plight of the world’s poor a major issue on campus, provided a means where students can make a contribution to a more equitable world through practical aid and through activism. Through the development of a Social Justice centre, Gerry is creating a lasting legacy and a bridge between the academic, political and practical justice which is a fantastic example to all other universities in Australia and around the world. Nelson Mandela said that ‘Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice.” Gerry has helped make those words a reality at Murdoch.”

Paddy Cullen, OXFAM.

 

Before departing Murdoch University, under Gerry Georgatos’ management he took sport and community development to new levels at the university (three campuses). He developed inter-social, inter-campus and inter-faculty sport. By the time he left Murdoch University ten per cent of the university’s students were involved in a sport. He re-introduced to the University sporting pennants. He increased the University’s intervarsity representation from its record of 15 students to 35 under his first year of management of the Guild which was responsible for sport and recreation. In the following years the intervarsity representation continued to increase,71 and then to 130 and in his last year to 201.

 

His proudest accomplishment was the increasing number of former prison inmates and homeless he was able to encourage into university and other various educational opportunities. Gerry Georgatos was a regular visitor to prisons where he spoke of the practical need for education and inspired many into education. He assisted many individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds through alternative pathways programs into education; changing lives. He assisted in their retention; developing and implementing substantive support programs. Gerry Georgatos developed student tutoring programs. Students who had achieved no less than a Distinction average in a recent unit of study were eligible to tutor new students. The student tutors were rewarded with merit mentions on their academic transcripts.

 

“There are few greater accomplishments I have enjoyed than in helping homeless individuals and former prison inmates into education, into accommodation, into jobs. The streets is a damaging experience, with sexual predation and various violence the reality of homelessness, With prison, from my experience in assisting people pre- and post-release it is my view that in general people come out of prison worse than when they went in,” Gerry Georgatos.

 

Journalist, Louise Tan, on Gerry Georgatos

“I have followed his work for many years. He is one of the most astute campaigners in the nation. His academic acumen but led by his huge heart has made many of his social justice campaigns success stories. He can get himself involved in controversy and alienate some but this is because he is both cutting edge and thinks outside the box.”

“In his wardrobe of qualifications is included PhD research in racism (which he willed away into the public domain), two Masters – a Master in Social Justice Advocacy, a Master in Human Rights, a Grad Dip in Human Rights Education, a Bachelor of Philosophy, a Bachelor in Australian Indigenous Studies, a Bachelor in Media. He is well armed for informed and astute campaigning.”

“Georgatos was significantly responsible for the release of Indonesian children from Australian adult prisons. These children came to Australian shores as cooks and deckhands on asylum seeker boats. He discovered these children in his visits to prisons and blew the whistle. For a time Georgatos was banned from visiting prisons – banned from visiting prisoners who he was guiding into education! But he launched a magnificent multilayered campaign to have these children released, involving many parties – the media, the legal fraternity, politicians, Indonesian and Australian government officials and finally the Australian Human Rights Commission. Without Georgatos coordinating this multifaceted campaign and in pulling everything out of the hat these children may have remained in prison. Georgatos even secured a meeting with Prime Minister Julia Gillard.”

“In securing the release of an Indonesian boy, Hadi, from an adult prison, seven times Walkley winning journalist Stephen Pennells in July 2011 wrote of Georgatos – “If it wasn’t for human rights advocate Gerry Georgatos, who ran into Hadi during a visit to Hakea four months ago and has been pushing his case with anyone who will listen ever since, the boy would have remained forgotten.”

“His campaigning skills should be artworks to study by even the best seasoned campaigners, to draw from. He has had successes with prison and criminal justice reforms. He has had a huge hand in campaigning for the retention of the Custody Notification Service in NSW and for its future implementation in Western Australia, which he describes as “the nation’s backwater” and states is “the mother of all jailers of Aboriginal people” and where “one in 13 of Aboriginal adult males are in prison today”. His advocacy for animal rights was established in the 1980s and around the same time he got involved in refugee human rights, starting at Galang refugee camp in Indonesia and continuing to this day. His refugee rights campaigns have seen the release from jails and detention centres of asylum seekers and the relocation of children from deplorable conditions in Darwin’s Northern Immigration Detention Centre to the lesser evil of community detention in Brisbane. The brunt of his work is behind the scenes and while what we see in the media or on the internet is just a scratch on the surface of the mass of what he coordinates.”

“Recently, the Christmas Day born 53 year old campaigner was significant in the saving of the life of a hunger striking asylum seeker – 25 year old Saeed Hassanloo. Our good old federal government who we elected to represent us kept secret from the nation that this young man was hunger striking. On the 35th day of the hunger strike he was transferred from a detention centre to Perth Royal Hospital. Georgatos campaigned for him and captured broadcast media, assisting the refugee rights movement who were coordinating vigils outside the hospital to capture national media attention. Hospital staff showed the young man the national news broadcasts and footage of the vigil. His spirits were lifted and on the 44th day of the hunger strike while the Minister for Immigration had readied a statement of Hassanloo’s passing, the young man was inspired to end his hunger strike.” – Louise Tan, journalist.

 

Forgiveness, redemption, ways forward instead of imprisonment and re offending

by Gerry Georgatos

November 29th, 2015

There is nothing as profoundly powerful as forgiveness. The forgiving of others validates self-worth, builds bridges and positive futures. Forgiveness cultivated and understood keeps families and society solid as opposed to the corrosive anger that diminishes people into the darkest places, into effectively being mentally unwell. Anger is a warning sign to becoming unwell. Love comes more natural to the human heart despite that hate can take one over. In the battle between love and hate, one will choose love more easily when in understanding of the endless dark place that is hate and of its corrosive impacts. Hate can never achieve what love ever so easily can. Hate and anger have filled our prisons with the mentally unwell, with the most vulnerable, with the poor – and not with the criminally minded.

I have worked to turn around the lives of as many people in jail as I possibly could but for every inmate or former inmate that people like me dedicate time to in order to improve their lot – ultimately there is a tsunami of poverty related issues and draconian laws that flood offenders and fill prisons. Jailing the poorest, most vulnerable, the mentally unwell, in my experience, only serves to elevate the risk of reoffending, of normalising disordered and broken lives, of digging deeper divides between people, of marginalising people. It has been my experience that in general people come out of prison worse than they went in.

We push maxims such as violence breeds violence, hate breeds hate but yet we incarcerate and punish like never before. Instead of prison sentences working as some sort of deterrent we have reoffending, arrest and jailing rates increasing year in year out.

One of society’s failures is the punitive criminal justice system and the penal estate. However despite the punitive penal estate having clearly failed society, we continue with it. For some it has become easier to lie and act as if the failure is a success or as if there are no alternatives than to accept the workload in another direction. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, in the Brothers Karamazov, wrote, “Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love.”

We have lied for so long in this capitalistic meritocratic society that for far too many, especially for those in the consummation of privilege – they have ceased to love and to forgive. The psychological, emotional and spiritual wellbeing of others, of those most vulnerable – lost to them. The mantra these days is the suffocation of ‘self-responsibility’.

Dostoyevsky, who also authored Crime and Punishment and the House of the Dead, wrote, “The degree of civilisation in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”

Australia has doubled its prison population in the last 20 years with a disproportionate hit on the marginalised, particularly the descendants of the First Nations peoples of this continent. First Nations people comprise 28 per cent of the total prison population though they are less than 3 per cent of the nation’s total population. I estimate that by 2025 First Nations people will comprise one in every two Australian prisoners. This is an abomination – moral, political and otherwise. From a racialised lens, Western Australia, the Northern Territory and South Australia jail First Nations peoples at among the world’s highest rates, with Western Australia competing for the mother of all jailers.

But what are their crimes? They have been born into extreme disadvantage, extreme poverty and into a spectrum with deplorable levels of likelihood of their deterioration from a state of hopelessness to being mentally unwell. Socrates understood that esteem was imperative to the striving for justice and goodness. This is where we fail people, we are not there to build or rebuild their esteem, to strive lovingly. Socrates would have us believe evils are the result of the ignorance of good. I am with Socrates, we have a society that is not bent by reinforcing the innate, of reinforcing ‘good’, but we are a society that demands an impression of what good might be and punish those who transgress. What we are after is unilateral orderliness among all people – and justice argues itself as blind, where everyone is equal but this is a stupendous lie, the law supports privilege and thrashes into the vulnerable, poor, sick – inequality is entrenched by the criminal justice system.

Sjoren Kierkegaard argued that sin meant wilfulness and unlike the Socratic view of ignorance of good, Kierkegaard was bent by the view that some people simply do not want to be good. As naïve as I may appear, the Socratic view aligns with what I have seen in prisons – of people who want to be good, innately are good, but who have accumulated despair, displaced anger, resentment from impoverished or disrupted upbringings.

–          An inmate said to me, “It is best I am here, and best I keep on coming back, because it is the only hope my children have.”

–          An inmate said, “I have no hope in here but it’s even worse out there.”

The penal estate is not rehabilitative, not restorative. There are limited job skills programs, limited education opportunities. The penal estate should have been an investiture in people rather than a dungeon, an abyss. The opportunity for healing, psychosocial empowerment, for forgiveness, for redemption, for education skills and qualifications are continually bypassed. This madness never ceases to shock me.

Australia’s overall prison rate of 151 prisoners per 100,000 population ranks 98th of the world’s 222 ranked nations. Australia is an affluent nation, the world’s 12th largest economy. However standalone Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders and compare their prison rate against the world’s national prison rates and they would have the world’s highest, just higher than the Seychelles which incarcerates at 799 per 100,000. The United States of America is second ranked at 698 per 100,000. However in Western Australia, First Nations peoples are incarcerated at more than 3,700 per 100,000. In Western Australia, one in 13 of all Aboriginal adult males is in prison.

No less than one in 10 and up to one in 6 Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders living has been to jail.

Forgiveness is not an act of mercy but of empathy, compassion, of virtue. According to vast bodies of research forgiveness has many benefits, outstripping negatives and risks. Forgiveness strengthens families, communities, societies. The most significant finding is the obvious, that forgiveness makes us happier. Forgiveness improves the health of people and communities. Forgiveness sustains relationships. Forgiveness builds and rebuilds lives. Forgiveness connects people, and what better medium for this than through kindness. It was Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the chairperson of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission who argued forgiveness as the only way forward to “true enduring peace”.

Someone I correspond with regularly emailed me the Chinese proverb, “It is better to light a small candle rather than curse the darkness.”

We have seen where we will be led to when the only response to crime is punishment. The United States jails nearly one per cent of its total population – 2,300,000 people. Are so many really so bad or is the United States extremely harsh on its most vulnerable? One in four of the world’s prisoners are in American jails. This is the future we need to avoid. If Australia would consider an amnesty – an immediate release – of very low level offenders – more than 8,000 of its 35,000 prison population would walk out today. If Australia was prepared to release its mentally unwell either into community care or specialist care, again more than 8,000 would walk out today. But at all times we should be working closely, lovingly, forgivingly with those inside and so bring them out of the prison experience not worse but better.

As it stands now, there is an elevated risk of death by suicide, substance misusing and misadventure in the first year post release – up to ten times according to all the research. We do ever so little for people pre- and post-release.

Society – the criminal justice system, custodial systems and ancillary support systems – will gain more from forgiveness, helping, empowering people than from any other measure. This is not to suggest some crimes should not require imprisonment but that all people are capable of redemption, and that there are far too many who should not be jailed and instead supported, and that at all times we should be doing what we can for our most troubled souls.

People are more likely to be good without having to go to prison but instead who are supported. For those who are sentenced to prison, these must be places where people come first, not last. But there must be forgiveness. They must be assisted in every way to forgive themselves. As a society our focus must be on forgiving and redemption. The most powerful kick-start is a society – the justice systems and our Governments – who are forgiving and hence the message of love will rush to everyone. For far too many people, repentance without forgiveness is torturous. But we must be a forgiving society to make this possible, and for now the odds are against us, as for too many forgiveness is a radical, gratuitous proposition.

Recommended reading:

Risk of death higher after release from prison