The Australian Corrections system isn’t working. We need to repurpose prison and resource communities

We know that the present ‘corrections’ systems in Australia are not working; not with respect to prison preparing people for successful re-entry and integration within their communities, and not with respect to communities being sufficiently prepared to support people released from prison.

Earlier this year, we invited people with direct experience and knowledge of the criminal justice systems in Australia to tell us:

How could prison function differently to prepare people for successful release?’

What conditions are needed within communities to effectively support people post-release?’

our World cafe questions in Perth, Brisbane, geelong, melbourne, sydney and by survey

Our project, though small scale, has identified a large number of elements that may well assist in repurposing prison or resourcing and readying communities for the return of people from prison to their communities.

Repurposing prison will involve reconceptualising prison, major culture change, altering staffing profile, increasing development and treatment programs, and practice changes to create a primary focus on preparation for post-release crime-free, productive and meaningful lives for those people released.

Resourcing and readying communities will likely involve directing resources to local communities, particularly those with a history of contributing substantially to the prison population, as well as creation of local integrated systems of support, formalising responsibility for local reintegration ‘infrastructure’ possibly through local councils, all within a broader program of support for communities identified as highly disadvantaged.

Repurposing prison

#1 Linkages between prisons and community: This was the most prominent theme identified related to how prison could function differently to better prepare people for release. The emphasis on the need to create/build the connection between ‘in’ and ‘out’ is consistent with the idea of a repurposing of ‘prison’.

#2 Reforming prison culture: Specific issues raised within this theme included: modelling prison culture to reflect the general community and encourage life skills ; providing specialist training for prison officers/guards in case management/social work; differentiating between low risk vs high offender needs and associated treatment and services and replacing the punitive approach and attitudes of prison staff with respect and inclusion principles

#3 Employing a trauma-based approach to therapeutic care: Our participants emphasised the need to treat pre-existing and prison-caused trauma as an important element of preparing people for successful release. Specific issues included: providing alcohol/other drug treatment and support and mental health treatment and support while imprisoned; using former prisoners as peer mentors in support roles; supporting psychological readiness for release and integration into the community; providing a greater number of mental health professionals and case managers to support a therapeutic approach; as well as training staff in trauma awareness and recognising pre-existing trauma and prison-trauma.

Resourcing communities

#1 De-stigmatisation and inclusion: This was the most prominent theme relating to resourcing and readying the community for release and reintegration of people from prison. Specific issues identified included: reducing sensationalist media (advocate against fear mongering and generating ‘good news’ stories); educating government and community (about the contexts of offending, challenges associated with desistance and reintegration, and the benefits of reintegration); reforming criminal record disclosure laws and providing incentives to employers hiring people who had been in prison.

#2 Throughcare training and services This was the second most prominent theme, demonstrating recognition that a large majority of people leaving prison have complex and multiple support needs and do need continuity of care for some time post-release. Specific issues raised included: provision of basic life and social skills development; family therapy and support; employment support; availability of training and education; appropriate housing (short-term, transitional, affordable, longer term); individualised and experienced case management; alcohol and other drug treatment and support; mental health treatment and support; service coordination and collaboration; and acknowledgement of the complexities associated with Indigenous status.

# 3 Whole of support system changes: Recognition of the need for system change suggests that participants understand that individuals alone, governments alone, communities alone cannot be expected to resolve what is a socially and financially costly problem. Specific issues included: the need to address the broad conditions of disadvantage within specific communities; funding local councils and making them responsible for reintegration; formalising ‘exit care’ as a standard part of a release package; introducing less onerous reporting in parole conditions; creating ‘identity pathways’ to facilitate necessary identity change from offender to citizen; breaking down support system ‘silos’ and establish local hubs; increasing terms and amounts of funding of community services; and introducing and supporting a reconciliation agenda that enlists culture leaders and elders into the process.

Read the full report here.

Let’s start a conversation.

We welcome your comments and ideas on repurposing prison and resourcing communities in our comments section below and on Twitter.