Restorative Justice: An Interview with Rob Buckingham

Wednesday, 24 June, 2015

Christie and Rob Buckingham are the senior pastors of Bayside Church in Melbourne. Over the years, they formed a close bond with drug smugglers Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran and advocated tirelessly for their clemency. Christie was with Myuran in his final hours as his spiritual advisor. In the wake of their executions, Rob joined me in discussing the importance of the projects the men began in Kerobokan Prison, the futility and cruelty of the death penalty, and the value of restorative justice.


Rachel: How did you become involved with Andrew Chan, Myuran Sukumaran and their families?

Rob: When Christie and I were in Bali a few years ago we met up with some old friends, Wayan and Gayle Dwije, who are the pastors of C3 church in Bali. While we were chatting with them they told us that they were doing some work in Kerobokan Prison, especially with Andrew and Myuran, and asked us if we would like to pop in and see what’s happening. We said we’d love to. So we went in for a morning and we met Andrew Chan on that day. From there we became great friends. We loved what he and Myuran were doing and saw that they had been rehabilitated and that they were working hard on various projects to help to rehabilitate and train other prisoners. There was something of what they were doing that really struck a cord with us and so we got involved not just with them personally but also with supporting the projects that they were doing to help others.


Rachel: Why, as a pastor who is for justice and against drugs, did you choose to support Andrew and Myuran?

Rob: They had trafficked drugs, they were caught and I’m glad they were caught. I wish all drug traffickers were caught. But seeing their rehabilitation and the work that they were doing to rehabilitate others… it really resonated with us. It’s true that it’s so easy to say, “Yes, I’ve changed,” but they were actually working all day every day, demonstrating their reformation and helping others to reform. What we loved about it was the majority of prisoners that they were working with were not on life sentences or on death row, so many of those prisoners Andrew and Myuran worked with are now out of jail and not reoffending. I’ve met many of them who are holding down good jobs, their families are going well and they are responsible members of society inside Indonesia and even in other nations.


Rachel: How would you describe the process of change that occurred within these men, to those who are skeptical of their reformation?

Rob: I understand people being skeptical. When someone says, “Well I’ve changed,” we think, “Well … demonstrate that.” And unless you have the opportunity to go there and meet them and see firsthand what they are doing, it may be very hard to see from a distance. But I guess that’s where trust comes in. You meet people like Christie and myself or numerous other people who had got to meet these men over the years and saw firsthand that they were two completely changed men.

When Andrew was caught he was put in a holding cell in Bali and it was a huge wake-up call for him because he realised it was likely that he would either be serving a life sentence or be put on death row. So right there he said that he got down on his knees and he prayed. He said, “God, if you’re there, could you please send someone to me.” And the next morning one of the guards came and woke him up and took him out to the visitor’s area. His mother [was there] and his old next-door neighbor… one of the boys he grew up with who was now a Salvation Army pastor. They talked to him and then they got him a Bible. He started reading the Bible and [over time] he committed his life to Jesus. Myuran’s story is that being arrested was also a huge wake-up call. He didn’t convert to Christianity straight away but he did reform himself. He developed a lot inside Kerobokan… The painting, the artworks, T-shirt printing and design… jewelry, computer training… And he spent all his days working on those projects and helping prisoners to gain skills that they could then use on the outside. So anyone who is skeptical of their reformation needs to talk to people that actually met them and knew them, and we were able to watch this over many years. You might be able to pretend to be reformed for a week or a month but you can’t pretend for year after year.


Rachel: So was their reformation solely a choice they made as individuals or did the prison help them to engage in activities or programs to aid their reformation?

Rob: When the Bali 9 [were] first arrested there was actually nothing to do inside the prison. There was no reform work, no projects, nothing. I think their wake-up call was being in such an unpleasant place. So what Andrew and Myuran did over the years was transform Kerobokan from the inside out. Myu said just before he died that he had a choice in prison to either do nothing, to do the wrong thing, or to do something. He said the easiest thing would be to do nothing or to do the wrong thing, but he chose the more difficult path and he did something.  He copped a lot of flack from fellow prisoners because he was showing them up basically by doing something and making a difference. I’ve been inside the art studio watching 10 or a dozen of the prisoners sitting there doing this magnificent artwork. Myu brought other people in like Ben Quilty, the Archibald prize-winning Australian artist, and he would train them in art. The prisoners were getting amazing skills. They literally transformed that prison.


Rachel: Despite this positive outcome, many people seem resistant to helping offenders reform and to the idea that certain criminals can be rehabilitated and changed. Where do you think this resistance comes from?

Rob: I think where the resistance comes from is a misunderstanding of number one, criminals, and number two, of the purpose of prison. Lots of people fall into crime – some because of bad choices, sometimes young people get involved in crime. There’s recent research around the brain development of young people. A young adult’s brain is actually not fully developed until they’re in their mid twenties. As a twenty one year old you think about and make decisions based on a completely different part of your brain to what an adult over, say, 25 would. Young people don’t tend to think of consequences. By the time you get into your mid twenties your brain development will be complete and you will actually start making decisions based on consequence, rather than the tendency being to make decisions based more on emotion. So people say “They knew the consequences,” and yes they probably did know the consequences, but I think back to my teens and early twenties… I smoked grass; I grew my own marijuana. I was involved in various forms of drugs… [The consequences] never dawned on me. I knew what I was doing was wrong but I did it because it was enjoyable. So I made decisions based on my emotions, which is what a person in their teens or early twenties would do. Now I would be thinking about the consequences.  And so the boys didn’t think about the consequences and… they did a stupid thing.


Rachel: What place do you think rehabilitation should have in worldwide prison systems?

Rob: I think it should have a major place. The way I would describe perfect justice is like the justice of God: it’s restorative justice. So when someone commits a crime and they are caught, they are tried to find out the level of their guilt and then based on the level of their guilt they are then sentenced.  And a prison sentence or a fine, or whatever the case might be, is… about punishment: “You’ve done the wrong thing and deserve to be punished.” But the second part of it is: “You’ve done the wrong thing and are being punished – while the punishment is happening, how can we restore you? How can we reform you?” So that’s why we call it restorative justice. When someone is sent to a prison in Australia, for example, sometimes we hear people complaining that our prisons are ‘too nice’. My comment to that is that the punishment is actually the taking away of freedom. So when someone is put in a prison they don’t have their freedom and that is the punishment. We shouldn’t actually be punishing them further by making them sleep on concrete floors, taking away televisions, all that kind of thing.


Rachel: Would you apply that to any level of crime? What if a criminal did something to a child?

Rob: You’ve touched on something there that I find the most horrendous level of crime. Talking about justice, the NSW government this week is bringing in [a change to] their laws so that the maximum penalty for a pedophile can be life in prison. And I thoroughly agree with that. Especially if they are a multiple offender in that way, they should have life without the possibility of parole because there the prison kicks in to protect society. But if someone can be rehabilitated, then we must be for restorative justice. While they are being punished we have to try to restore them and rehabilitate them and the way you rehabilitate people is by giving them skills, giving them education and helping them if they have a mental disorder. There are lots of different things that would come into play there. Then there needs to be strict guidelines: is this person genuinely reformed? Are they rehabilitated? Can they fit back into society again? There needs to be halfway houses where ex-criminals can be brought into a home where they can still be monitored, that then help put them back into society again. We need to have programs where people can get jobs. Because what happens quite often is… a prisoner is let out of jail… [then] where do they go?


Rachel: And if there’s no rehabilitation and these people get let back out, that’s probably why there are so many reoffenders.

Rob: Our laws are the opposite of Indonesia’s. Indonesia has the death penalty, which I disagree with. But our laws are sometimes so pathetic that they let out a person on bail like the guy who did the Sydney Siege [Man Haron Monis]. He was on bail. Why on earth was he ever walking the streets? A classic example is with Jill Meagher’s murderer, who was a constant reoffender of violent rape. For someone like that I would be thinking that they should actually be given a life sentence that means life, because society needs to be protected. While they are serving life in jail though, I don’t think they should just be shut in a cell in solitary confinement, because that is ultimate cruelty. We make ourselves as bad as them if we treat them in that way.  So they should have their freedom restricted but I think they should still be given things to do within prison to occupy their time.


Rachel: What would you say to those who argue that standing for mercy for these two men means we are being ‘soft on drugs’?

Rob: I don’t believe in being soft on drugs. We were never asking for justice not to be done with Andrew and Myuran. All that was being asked was that they wouldn’t be shot and that their death sentence would be commuted to a life sentence. So it wasn’t soft justice. If you ever have the opportunity to go to Kerobokan prison and you imagine spending the rest of your life in there… that is not soft justice.


Rachel: And they were actually starting to help the drug problem, weren’t they?

Rob: Yes. And that’s what we were trying to get across to the Indonesian government. You have a massive drug problem in Indonesia. You want to try and tackle this drug problem. You’ve got two reformed prisoners in one of your prisons that are running programs, which are actually reforming drug traffickers and drug users. So these people go into prison as drug traffickers and users, they meet Andrew or Myuran, they get involved in one the programs these guys are running. Then their lives are completely reformed. They get out of prison, they hold down good jobs, they get married, they have kids, and they become responsible members of society. They’re not on drugs, they’re not trafficking drugs, and they are not reoffending in any way. You’ve got two men that are helping you achieve your goal and so you take them out… and shoot them. If Indonesia actually realised what they had they would have gotten alongside them, looked at the projects they were doing, got them happening in all the prisons in Indonesia and put the money and time aside to help them and others like them start or continue restorative justice in Indonesia. Australia’s justice system could have learned so much from Andrew and Myuran.


Rachel: Do you think the death penalty is ever OK?

Rob: I don’t think that two wrongs make a right. I think that there are better ways, like the ones I have touched on. One of the reasons I am against the death penalty is because it doesn’t just punish the guilty – it punishes the innocent. What could the Indonesians have lost by allowing these two men to live in Kerobokan prison, to help rehabilitate other Indonesians? At least the families could have visited and seen them on a regular basis.

But I think heinous crimes should mean life in prison, particularly of crimes of abuse against a child. I think a life sentence needs to be in place for paedophiles, for example, particularly where there is no possibility of rehabilitation or reform. We need to protect our kids. We need to protect society. I think we need to be a lot tougher in Australia. I’m amazed at the weakness of our justice system. I hear from some friends who are in the police force and they get so frustrated because they have spent so much time, energy and money catching a criminal only to put them in front of the justice system and see them get a rap over the knuckles [and] told they’re naughty boys.



Rachel: So we aren’t solving anything.

Rob: Indonesia hasn’t even caught the people who were responsible for the drug trafficking. Andrew Chan was not a kingpin. The Bali 9 guys were drug mules. The people that are higher up in these trafficking organisations groomed them. They pick certain types of people. Andrew, Myuran and the other seven fit the bill. Andrew was addicted to heroin so he needed money to feed his habit. Easy target. And Lindsay Sandiford, the English grandma who is on death row in Kerobokan now, she’s 58 and her son got mixed up in the wrong company in England. The guy [who] was responsible for trafficking the drugs said to her, “If you don’t do this, I’m going to kill your son.” So she agreed to carry some drugs out of Bangkok into Bali. And she got caught. Now she’s on death row but she’s the drug mule. She’s a single mum, two kids, loves her boys. She probably has bipolar [disorder] and maybe one or two other mental disorders. So what do we do to someone like that? There will be plenty more people like Andrew, like Myu, like Lindsay.


Rachel: What did you learn from the way those who were executed handled their fate?

Rob: I think what I learnt was the amazing courage that can be demonstrated when you know where you’re going. Andrew’s faith in God had grown for ten years; Myu’s started to grow in January this year. Christie said to me that standing with them in the hours before they were executed was like standing on holy ground. They could feel God’s amazing presence. And so they walked out with courage. They sang ‘Amazing Grace’, they sang ‘Mighty to Save’ and while they were tied to the post and ready to be shot they sang ‘10,000 Reasons’. They got half way through the second verse and then the shots rang out. They didn’t want to be blindfolded, they wanted to sing and worship… They wanted to be with Jesus.  They were so excited about going to be home with the Lord. Andrew and Myuran had taught the others [to be executed] the words to the songs and by the time they got to the killing field they were all singing.


Rachel: What message do you think Andrew and Myu’s lives (and deaths) send to us? What should be done from here?

Rob: What the boys wanted was that we continue to advocate against the death penalty around the world and that we would continue their rehabilitation projects… inside Kerobokan Prison. The thing that they really wanted was that [their legacy] would continue, that it wouldn’t die with them.


Rachel: Some people question why we should we be focused on Andrew and Myuran when there are other issues going on in the world. What do you say to that?

Rob: We can all multitask with issues of need. Just because we are focused on helping two men of the Bali 9, doesn’t mean that we neglect everything else. As a church community we receive special offerings and only a couple weeks ago one was to help World Vision give aid in Nepal. We were able to raise $11,000 that weekend. I think the thing is that the problems in the world are massive. We can’t focus on everything and we can’t fix everything. Sometimes because of that, people do nothing. But our choice as a church community has been to say, “The problems in the world are huge and we cannot solve all the world’s problems, but as a church community we can do so much, so we will do what we can do.”  We can’t rescue all the orphans in Africa but we can help eight of them. Should we help none because we can only help eight? We can’t feed all the homeless people in Melbourne, but we can help a couple hundred a week… Should we do nothing because we can’t help all the homeless people? I can’t advocate for all the people on death row around the world but I certainly can make a difference to those two, or try to. Together we can do big things.