Aboriginal women are the fastest growing prisoner population, with their number rising more than 70 per cent since 2011. One in three female prisoners are Aboriginal, and they are younger, with higher rates of reoffending and poorer social and emotional wellbeing and mental health than non-Indigenous women in custody.
The National Health and Medical Research Council has invested $965,000 in an innovative five-year project that aims to disrupt the pipeline of young Aboriginal women returning to custody in NSW. It will provide a unique throughcare model, designed by Aboriginal people, that will reflect the family, community and culture dimensions of young women recently released from custody.
The Bangamalhana project (meaning, “to share” in Wiradjuri) is a strategic partnership between government agencies, Aboriginal community services and researchers. It will provide the first contemporary data on social and emotional wellbeing, mental health and throughcare for young Aboriginal women.
Leading the project is UTS Distinguished Professor Elizabeth Sullivan, Director of the Australian Centre for Public and Population Health Research, who says current strategies are failing to keep young women off the criminal justice treadmill.
“There is an epidemic of incarceration of young Aboriginal people in Australia, with Aboriginal women the most rapidly growing population of prisoners in recent years,” Professor Sullivan says.
“Australia continues to receive international criticism for its rising rates of incarceration of Indigenous peoples.
“What this project aims to do is disrupt the incarceration pipeline by co-designing a program with communities and stakeholders that is culturally safe and focused on better serving the needs of young Aboriginal women as they re-integrate into their communities.”
Professor Sullivan says the multidisciplinary research team of mostly women is drawn from UTS, University of Sydney and UNSW as well as NSW Justice Health and Forensic Mental Health Network and Corrective Services NSW. The first stage will use existing data to identify what’s working and where the gaps are.
“I must stress the collaborative nature of this project and the emphasis there will be throughout on community and stakeholder engagement to develop a model that will focus on the social and emotional wellbeing of these young women and bring recidivism down,” Professor Sullivan says.
Co-researcher Dr Megan Williams, a Wiradjuri descendant and UTS academic, says she is thrilled to have the opportunity to address the problem of throughcare at a whole-of-system level.
“We currently provide very poor care when a woman is released from prison. Families are locked out of the release process and the woman is stressed and depressed from the word go. Families can feel helpless and frustrated,” Dr Williams says.
“The throughcare schemes that exist – to follow people from their first day in court to sentencing, prison and their release back into the community – are not run by Aboriginal people and don’t reflect Aboriginal people’s reality, which must include family.”
“Workers in the criminal justice system are under enormous pressure – this is an extreme working environment. Our project will look at how we can develop and equip a culturally capable and informed workforce that can improve the social health and wellbeing of Aboriginal women in the criminal justice system.”
Co-researcher Associate Professor Melissa Kang, an expert in youth health and wellbeing, says the underpinning philosophy of the Bangamalhana project is resilience, with a focus on wellbeing and co-design.
“Together with young Aboriginal women and their communities, the project will develop a model of ‘throughcare’ – pathways to wellbeing and reconnection for young women prior to and upon release from the justice system that can be sustained over time,” Dr Kang says.
- Aboriginal women comprise 34 per cent of female prisoners yet 2 per cent of the Australian population
- They are the most rapidly growing prisoner population, with their number rising more than 70 per cent since 2011
- Aboriginal women have younger ages on entry, higher rates of recidivism and poorer social and emotional wellbeing and mental health than non-Indigenous women in custody
- Social and emotional wellbeing (SEWB) is a holistic concept that recognises the importance to Aboriginal people of connection to land, culture, spirituality, ancestry, family and community
- There is a lack of evidence about young Aboriginal women and what works; most prison programs and interventions are designed for male prisoners