Culturally appropriate programs

9.46     A key element of best practice prison programs is that they are culturally appropriate. In discussing what constitutes a culturally appropriate program for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners on remand or serving short sentences, and for female Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners, stakeholders advised that programs should be:

  • designed, developed and delivered by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations where possible;
  • trauma-informed, especially where being delivered to female Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners; and
  • focused on practical application, particularly for prisoners on remand or short sentence who need the skills on release to reintegrate.

9.47     These characteristics are briefly outlined below.

Design, development and delivery

9.48     Prison programs for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples need to be led by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations where possible. Stakeholder submissions stressed the importance of prison programs being developed and delivered by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations where available.[90] This was key to the provision of culturally appropriate programs. Kingsford Legal Centre acknowledged research conducted by Queensland Corrective Services that supports the proposition that culturally appropriate programs are effective in reducing recidivism.[91]

9.49     Legal Aid NSW suggested that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representatives needed to be involved with the development and delivery of prison programs in order to provide approaches that were local, holistic and trauma-informed, noting that many prisoners are descendants of the Stolen Generation and that ‘their trauma is different to that of non-Indigenous population’.[92]

9.50     ALSWA emphasised the need for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander specific programs, and the need for these to be developed in collaboration with peak Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations such as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander legal services and Aboriginal Family Violence Prevention Legal Services. It suggested that programs should provide a ‘one-stop shop’—a culturally appropriate model providing legal and family assistance with holistic support and case management.[93]

9.51     VALS recommended that the delivery of programs be:

  • designed, delivered and managed by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people;
  • well resourced and consistent;
  • supported by case management by Aboriginal community controlled organisations, both in prison and in transition;[94]
  • supported by prison staff who are trained in cultural awareness; and
  • designed around Aboriginal understandings of health, which includes ‘mental health, physical, cultural and spiritual health’, and understands that land is central to wellbeing.[95]

9.52     The Commissioner for Children and Young People (WA) suggested the implementation of culturally appropriate support for young offenders in custody. For young people, culturally appropriate programs should address underlying issues, take a trauma-informed approach and encourage young people to re-engage with school, learning and community.[96] The Commissioner also noted the need for a ‘particular focus on Aboriginal young women in the justice system’, who were described as a ‘particularly vulnerable group in the prison population’. It was suggested that women with current or prior experience in the youth justice system be consulted and involved in the design and development of such programs.[97] The Miranda Project further suggested that programs be developed ‘by Aboriginal women for Aboriginal women to be delivered by Aboriginal women’.[98]

A trauma-informed approach[99]

9.53     Understanding the effects of trauma has been identified as a key requirement for prison programs delivered to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners, and in particular, for female prisoners.[100]

9.54     The Prison to Work Report found that support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander female prisoners could be improved, and recommended that the Commonwealth Government work with states and territories to ‘explore options’ for pilot programs for women while in prison and to provide better throughcare which would accommodate the needs and likely experiences of ‘trauma, abuse and family violence of female Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners’.[101] It also recommended that state and territory governments consider ways to ‘better facilitate women’s access to their children while in prison’.[102]

9.55     The NSW Government submitted that Corrective Services NSW do take a different, trauma-informed approach to addressing the needs of female Aboriginal offenders than men, citing the Out of Dark program for women who had experienced domestic and family abuse as victims. In 2016–17, 24 women participated, of which 10 (42%) were Aboriginal.[103]

9.56     In Victoria, the Dilly Bag Program provides ‘intensive assistance’ to Aboriginal women in prison who are recovering from traumatic experiences.[104] VALS supported the development of such programs for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander accused peoples and offenders, noting that the need for

therapeutic and holistic programs for those on remand and serving short sentences is felt most acutely by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who are more likely to be held on remand and are more likely to be incarcerated for less than 12 months than any other group.[105]

9.57     CLANT also observed it be ‘essential that rehabilitation programs for women be designed and delivered using a trauma-informed approach’.[106] Women’s Legal Service NSW sought culturally safe, strength based and trauma-informed programs that respond to the specific needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in prison, including women held on remand. This was echoed by the Queensland Law Society and Change the Record.[107]


9.58     Stakeholders submitted that programs must:

  • address offending behaviours, especially for people on short sentences and female Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners serving any term of imprisonment;
  • provide practical assistance; and
  • provide case management, including beyond the end of a sentence.

Address offending behaviours

9.59     The Sisters Day In programis an example of a program that addresses offending behaviour. It is an early intervention and prevention program to reduce Aboriginal women’s vulnerability to family violence.[108] The Kunga Stopping Violence program, operated by the Central Australian Aboriginal Legal Aid Service focuses on community reintegration for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women who have been imprisoned for violent offending. National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service (NATSILS) noted that ‘all Kunga participants have disclosed histories of some form of domestic, family, sexual or community violence’ and that the program has been designed to support women with strategies in relation to: drug and alcohol dependencies; emotional intelligence; intergenerational trauma; domestic and family violence; accommodation; and positive thinking. Women are supported for up to 12 months post release.[109]

9.60     The Public Health Association of Australian suggested there be an emphasis on programs that target substance misuse.[110] The Australian Red Cross observed that, in order to achieve one of the aims of imprisonment—to prevent recidivism—it is essential for offenders to be able to address the ‘complex and multiple’ reasons for offending. Accordingly, despite the stated logistical and practical challenges, programs should be available for female Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander offenders, prisoners serving short sentences, and people on remand, and have a throughcare focus.[111]

Practical assistance

9.61     Programs that provide practical assistance are also required, and may be especially beneficial for prisoners on remand. The NT Anti-Discrimination Commissioner noted that in the NT Ombudsman Report, women and stakeholders clearly articulated those programs that were required, including programs around basic literacy and numeracy, trauma and grief, and loss.[112]

9.62     Prison programs that provided practical assistance to support reintegration, such as helping prisoners organise post-release accommodation, finances and employment are needed.[113] Legal Aid WA submitted that this need superseded that of programs that focus only on offending behaviours.[114] ALSWA suggested that programs for remandees can be effective if they respond to the ‘underlying needs of the prisoner rather than focusing on the specific offence or offences for which the prisoner is in custody’. These could address ‘practical needs’ such as housing, literacy and financial literacy, employment and training, substance abuse, driver licences and unpaid fines, and programs that help transition back into the community upon release.[115] The Miranda Project proposed that short-term programs needed to move beyond addressing criminogenic needs, and focus on social and welfare concerns such as housing, social connections and poverty, and legal literacy (identified as particularly important for female offenders).[116]

9.63     VALS acknowledged the gap in practical services for female Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners, and recommended programs that:

  • provide tailored service delivery;
  • provide transition planning, supported by case management; and
  • involve ‘wrap around’ service delivery regarding culture; employment; health, including mental health; education; housing; community and legal services; and child specialist services.[117]

9.64     NSW Government highlighted the issue of unemployment among prisoners, where only 16% of Aboriginal prisoners in NSW had been employed in the community on entry into prison, compared with 39% of non-Indigenous prisoners; highlighting a need for employment and education programs.[118]

9.65     The Prison to Work Report noted the practical barriers to employment that prisoners experience on release. It suggested that some barriers that could be easily overcome with assistance, such as opening a bank account or applying for valid identity documents, while others were more difficult to overcome, such as transport and accommodation. The Prison to Work Report also identified ‘intangible barriers’ to employment, such as changing entrenched behaviours, reintegration into civic life, and a lack of agency stemming from institutionalisation. It noted that ‘unrealistic demands and expectations made of ex-prisoners occur when they are at their most vulnerable, which is in the period immediately following their release’.[119]

9.66     In 2017, the Commonwealth Department of Employment released a consultation paper on the proposed Prison to Work—Employment Service Offer that was developed from the Prison to Work Report. The Employment Service Offer will target Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners who wish to participate and provide them with assistance to help prepare for employment post release. It plans to provide all participating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners with employments services from three months before their scheduled release date; an assessment to identify any needs or barriers; a ‘Transition Plan’; and a ‘Facilitated Transfer’ to an employment service provider. The program will be cross-coordinated between government and private providers with demonstrated cultural competence.[120] Where operating in a women’s prison, the provider should provide a trauma-informed approach.[121] The Department of Employment has published an intention that sentenced, adult Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoner serving sentences of over three months will be eligible to participate in the Employment Service Offer.[122]

Case management and throughcare

9.67     The need for pre-release case management was highlighted, with Legal Aid NSW noting:

We also consider there is a need for improved pre-release case management for prisoners on short sentences. The PLS often speaks to inmates who are serving short sentences with a parole period who do not speak with Community Corrections until very close to their “automatic” release date. In some cases, this may be only a few weeks before their earliest possible release date. The absence of post-release planning for these inmates is particularly concerning where they are referred to short-term temporary accommodation upon release.[123]

9.68     Many stakeholders supported the inclusion of programs and case management that included plans for post-release housing or housing support, assistance with Centrelink and, even, transportation from prison.[124] The NT Anti-Discrimination Commissioner suggested that programs be provided by registered providers in modules that could be completed in the community where a prisoner had not finished the program by the time they are released.[125]