A fighting chance

Anton Stavreas was at his lowest point when he was arrested for dealing drugs in 2009. In the two year wait for his court appearance, he actively worked to turn his life around

I made significant changes through committing to and starting my own business plastering and rendering, which had really taken off. I was working six or seven days a week to keep myself busy.

“During this time I also took up martial arts, boxing, kickboxing, the full routine. While I was on bail I went over to Hong Kong and had my first kickboxing fight, which was pretty good.

“The adrenaline was a new addiction for me so I knew that was what I wanted.”

Then the day came for Anton’s sentencing. The situation in court seemed grim, with the presiding judge telling him he was facing up to a five year term. “I thought I was probably going to go in … I just started calculating how old I was going to be when I got out.”

To his relief the judge handed down a suspended sentence, citing Anton’s early guilty plea and commitment to improving his situation in the two years since his arrest. It was quite a wakeup call and forced a reevaluation of his future.

“The number one question I asked myself was ‘what have you done with your life?’ I always thought I wanted to do this, I wanted to do that, but I had never actually done it — I just thought I could always do it later.

“I guess for me it wasn’t about going to jail that was worrying, it was more about the time I was going to lose and about the fear of not reaching my full potential.”

Wanting to work with young people caught up in the justice system, Anton had enrolled in a mental health course at TAFE when he heard about the work of Australian Red Cross. Red Cross tries to prevent vulnerable people from going to jail by providing alternative approaches and community-based programs. Anton promptly volunteered to get some work experience.

“When I first came in from the streets I didn’t know how to turn on the computer,” he says. “I rocked up in thongs, singlet and shorts.”

Anton felt supported by the people he worked with, and embraced the opportunity to work with and mentor young people.

“Red Cross played a crucial role as to where I am today in many ways. The biggest thing was the Fundamental Principles.”

The principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality, independence, voluntary service, unity and universality guide the organisation in all its work. For Anton, they meant he felt accepted by other staff members and not judged by his past.

“Being treated with those Fundamental Principles is empowering and it keeps you on track. It gives you purpose when you are accepted for who you are.

After a year of volunteering, Anton got a job with Red Cross as a mentor to young people who were moving from prison into the community.

According to statistics, those most likely to be jailed are from disadvantaged backgrounds, have mental health issues, have experienced physical or sexual abuse and have low education levels. Alarmingly, 40% of people return to prison within two years of release.

People change if they have something that is worth more to them than going and mucking around,” says Anton.

“The change I had was through sport, through boxing, stick fighting and kick boxing. The routine, the release of endorphins, being around a great supportive community, they were the things that showed me there was something worth more than doing all the negative stuff I was doing.”

Drawing on his own experience, Anton developed a program for prison inmates, based on physical exercise, addressing anger management, decision making, self-esteem and self-discipline. One of the prison programs he has worked on had a 100 per cent attendance rate.

“The changes I am seeing in people are physical, mental, social and in their decision making and self-worth.”

He tells of one 16-year-old inmate who made a particular impression on him.

“He came into our session and he couldn’t do a push up. I jumped down next to him and we did the push ups together and I spent a bit of time with him during that session. And so he came back every week.

“About five or six weeks later we had another new kid come in who was like; ‘I am no good at this stuff, this is crap’. The first guy came up, patted him on the back and said; ‘don’t worry about it, bro. You start out like this but you will end up loving it.’ The kid then joined in.”

Not long after that Anton met up with the teenager again, this time on the outside.

“I saw him at the train station probably about two months later. He didn’t smoke dope anymore, he was enrolled in TAFE, going to school, achieving all his goals.”

Like Anton, the young man has moved away from a life of crime. It’s proof of how the outcomes for offenders can change if given the chance -and support — to turn their lives around. Many will grab the opportunity and fight for it.

Australian Red Cross’ ‘Rethinking Justice’ research report is an in-depth look at incarceration statistics. Read the findings and recommendations here.

Words by Katie Isaac

Photos by Lara Cole