Life outside

Life outside

What sane person would allow a complete stranger and convicted felon to come and stay in their home?

An Australian angel that’s for sure. But they exist, as evidenced by the new SBS documentary series, Life outside.

Unlike many other TV shows, this is not an imported format, although it is based on a US repeat offender show. It’s just that it’s now being filmed for SBS cameras by ITV Studios Australia.

There are more than 40,000 Australians in prison and statistics show 1 in 2 will go back to prison in the first 2 years mainly due to lack of housing and support. For some ex-convicts, life outside can be overwhelming, a concept that even TV dramas have entertained with key characters.

Danielle Cormack, ex Wentworth star, narrates this three-part series in which several ex-convicts will be given new homes for 100 days by extremely benevolent Australians, three of whom we meet at length in the first episode.

School teacher Amanda who lost her brother to a drug overdose lives alone and takes in Sierra, who is released after serving 13 months at Cessnock for drug possession, theft, dishonest obtaining of a financial advantage. At 40 she wants her children back.

“New house, new area…. I need to grow up and do something with my life,” Sierra says.

Amanda, who likes to watch Midsomer murders, he admits, “I may be naïve about what’s going to happen. I prefer to go into this however with a generous heart and be open-minded…”.

When the two meet there is hesitation, excitement and lots of questions.

Jeremy, 40, has a long history of incarceration. This is his fourteenth outing, after 2 years for aggravated prison break. He is greeted by Louise who runs a computer company from home with her adult children. While daughter Brittany is open to the idea, son Reggie is less convinced. Louise’s father, a minister, visited prisoners and told her that many had made bad decisions about her life.

“Most of them were quite eager to turn their lives around,” she says. “That made me feel pretty comfortable with the idea that people deserve second chances.”

The third pairing is between husband and wife, emergency operator Wayne and TAB owner Julie, with ex-prisoner Brett, 52. He was released after 7 months on multiple convictions, including assault for reckless driving and common assault.

“I think it’s about time we stuck our heads out and did the right thing,” Brett says.

He is about to meet Wayne, a salty dude of the earth, who argues: “If we can show that we are all Australians, we are all behind our fellows, everyone should have this opportunity.”

Wayne will even offer Brett his house key, which is a great move for a complete stranger.

Episode two will include the release of an Indigenous prisoner, with statistics showing they are 13 times more likely to be locked up than non-Indigenous people.

I’m not entirely sure why ex-cons agree to cameras filming them (is there a production fee?). All homes require NSW Correctional Services approval and involve strict probation conditions with case workers. But they seem to view the move as a temporary fix with varying levels of optimism.

There’s also the question of whether being followed by a camera crew adds to the pressure or helps them stay on the straight and narrow?

Obviously the series requires conflicting storylines to be successful as a narrative. If all inmates/families go through a smooth path, this would be a one-time recidivism special. Instead the characters, and their various hopes and dreams, are an investment in the viewer. And apparently in the promos for the episode, there will be moments of conflict, regret, and the whole experiment likely to continue.

But this is SBS. You would expect green shoots of hope that toughly illustrate, most will succeed and that we can all do better to fix a broken system. Yes, this is a worthy TV (perfect for a Glasses box debate), if with hard love. But it’s also a pretty amazing access and I expect it to be produced in other territories.

Flag SBS and ITV Studios for taking a risk and proposing the deeper argument that everyone deserves a second chance.

Life Outside 8.30pm Wednesday on SBS.