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Preventing Indigenous reincarceration through community health

2 August 2017

The following is an excerpt from a Think:Health episode that aired on Sunday 30 July 2017.

Listen online 107.3 2ser (audio length 9:12) 

Host: Jake Morcom

Guest: Megan Williams, Senior Lecturer, Graduate School of Health


Megan Williams:               The criminal justice system rehabilitation is quite different to, let's say, public health rehabilitation and certainly, to Aboriginal health and healing. Really, a lot of people in criminal justice system have multiple health issues. It's really hard for a system to respond, like which issue is the priority issue? Just the one presenting or the underlying ones? Graduate School of Health Senior Lecturer Megan Williams

Coming from public health perspective, we see the underlying issues that are about employment or economics, poverty, education. Also, for Aboriginal people, history, the impact of history over decades of families. So that means, the more support and better connections, people can have post-release, hopefully, the less risk that they go back in. We know that their sentence length gets longer, the more they're incarcerated. It doesn't get shorter based on having done the time in the past. Therefore, those connections to the community are lost and damaged in the process. I had, as a general rule with my methodology, why measure misery? I needed as individual someone within a family and a community to seek out the strengths and solutions.

Jake Morcom:                   What are some of those solutions?

Megan Williams:               My focus was only on the roles of Aboriginal people and Aboriginal organisations. Aboriginal people wear many hats. One Aboriginal woman or men, they might be a service provider in an Aboriginal community controlled organisation or community justice group, but more than likely, they're on some reference group for some research projects like mine or something. They might also be on the local government Aboriginal community advisory group or on the Premier's advisory group. They might also be the aunt or uncle or parent or brother or sister of someone in prison system and they might support elders who do work in and out of prison.

So there's multiple hats. With Aboriginal people, it's all insider knowledge that means, you can deliver really timely care, dialogue, conversation, and also, connecting people to other people. Rather than that one person already wearing many hats, having to do more and more and more, I saw Aboriginal people quite skilled at going – right, you need to talk to this person or I'm going to bring this person in and then you, too, can go sort that through. Or here's an organisation that does that or here's some other connection. So that role is as a connector, not as a solver necessarily or rescuer but to connect and just keep connecting and connecting, more connections are made then and more connections are made. Aboriginal men's groups and women's groups, that's where I would put my money.

Jake Morcom:                   Why is that? What was in particular about those groups that you would put your money on?

Megan Williams:               People who go to those groups sometimes, they really have a diverse membership. Sometimes you'll have someone there who's highly experienced professional right next to someone who spent 15 years in and out of prison that hasn't really had the chance to work or have a career, but they're both there as Aboriginal people, first and foremost, to look at things like shared experiences as Aboriginal people, identity, the need for healing, every family, regardless of what they've achieved has those stories of trauma and damage and disruption from the past especially from stolen generations.

Those men's and women's groups, yeah, they can be fluid. They're pretty cheap to run, but I wouldn't ever want to say "So don't fund them". You know what I mean. There's a challenge in a neoliberal context where I'm sure policy makers and funding bodies would say "Well, they can run themselves.” We don't need to fund them, but they do much better when there is some resourcing. That can be, definitely, in funds but also in partnerships and donations and volunteering, contributions.    

In the prison context, because they're autonomous groups, it's viable to bring them in in prison and for those relationships to be able to continue and be sustained so that when someone comes out, they've got some familiar faces to go back to, to join again without those fellows needing to be professionals and accredited and I guess all the other barriers that might come with professional service delivery. There's quite a lot of work to do even just there.

People come with a lot of damage and people have been so profoundly hurt or damaged or forgotten or worried. People have really hit that place where they've had to dig deep within themselves and think about their own inequalities, not social inequality but inner-qualities. Both of them are, just, for me, the two keywords in Aboriginal ways of caregiving. The social inequality plays into it. One key way to come to terms with that is to help each other understand our own inner qualities and then together, we can address systemic issues.

People can address systemic issues without their own healing journey, but you often see laced with aggression or it's not sustainable because it's so hard to do the policy advocacy and to stand up and to be a representative and all the flock that comes with that without knowing how to draw on your own strengths.

Jake Morcom:                   To go back to the end goal or direction you see in your research travelling toward, is it to look at not only providing these community services but to reduce the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who are reincarcerated?

Megan Williams:               It's a goal to reach in terms of generating the evidence. I've recently done a review, a very large and detailed review, of any research from around the world that shows how reincarceration rates are reduced. There's scant evidence among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples or among Indigenous peoples. Really, I could only come up with a handful of what we call grey literature. We have got bits of research that I would stitch together as a patch work quilt that then make a logical sense. We do know that improving mental health and well-being can reduce recidivism, reincarceration. We might have one study or three studies that shows that and then there'll be a few studies that show that coordinated case management that begins in prison with release planning and post-release planning and post-release follow up reduces recidivism.

We can stitch together those and that's exactly what men's groups can do because you know who is in prison. The elders and the leaders, they pretty much know exactly who is in a centre.  Let's say, in a town or even in a city, they'll know and they know, pretty much, which families they're connected to and what the stories of those families are. We're all connected. So many families are related or connected or have shared experience. They'll often now know who is getting out when and where they're going and what they're going to have and what they need, and they'll call people in to say "Do this and come here, and pick them up and run them over here". You get dragged in to stuff.

That's continuity of care. They're doing it quite naturally and they take responsibility. There's such a strong value of Aboriginal people to take responsibility. I know we see people visible who look like they're not taking responsibility but there's factors involved in why they're not. Rather than blame and shame them for that, it's about understanding "Well, if that was me, what would be causing me to end up in that situation? In fact, it could be me. It could have been me. It might still be me. I've got to keep well and part of keeping well is assisting others."