A better way to leave prison: supporting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander offenders

There is an urgent need for programs that focus on the health and social support needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people leaving prison, according to new research published by The Australian Journal of Rural Health.

The report – led by Dr Penny Abbott from Western Sydney University and co-authored by researchers from the UNSW Sydney and University of Sydney – concludes programs that are flexible; accessible to those on short sentences; and take a holistic and long-term view of health and wellbeing, are best placed to help address the overrepresentation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander people in prison.

Dr Abbott from the University’s School of Medicine, says: “Release from prison is a time of high vulnerability, and can lead to poor health and wellbeing, social exclusion and re-offending, so it’s vital that adequate programs and support are available at this time.”

“Our study found that not only are there insufficient programs in general, but also little targeting of available programs to Aboriginal and Torres Strait people.”

Ms Elizabeth McEntyre, an Aboriginal co-author of the research from the School of Social Sciences, UNSW Sydney, noted: “this research was done in partnership with the Aboriginal Medical Service Western Sydney, because they and other Aboriginal Medical Services see this as a vital issue for their communities and an issue which needs more recognition”.

According to the report – a systematic literature review of peer-reviewed and non peer-reviewed literature published between 2001 and 2013 –  post-release programs for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be:

Culturally competent in design and delivery: Programs should be established within a framework of social justice and reconciliation which actively supports connections for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to their culture.

  • Holistic with a long-term view: In addition to adequately managing health in prison, effective programs require a long- term, holistic approach, such as through addressing experiences of grief and loss and helping people to re-establish links with their community.
  • Have the involvement of families and communities: Involvement of family and communities was shown to improve program effectiveness.  Supportive families, friends and community assisted reintegration.
  • Include ‘just in time’ release planning for those on remand and with short sentences who miss out on reentry support, more common for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people
  • Be coordinated across all services:  In general, lack of coordination between programs and services was seen as a major barrier to the effectiveness of re-entry programs.
  • Have links between prison and community-based services: Working with community-based health care providers who were involved prior to incarceration could increase the effectiveness of in-prison health interventions, including Aboriginal community controlled health organisations.

Dr Abbott said she hopes such recommendations are taken on board when reviewing and introducing re-entry programs.

“I think we need to give a fairer go to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in contact with the criminal justice system, and make sure they have access to the right kinds of programs which will make a difference,” Dr Abbott says.


12 December 2017

Emma Sandham, Senior Media Officer