Efforts to prevent suicides among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should include a focus on reducing over-incarceration, according to a major report.
The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention Evaluation Project (ATSISPEP) report has backed Justice Reinvestment, to divert funding from prisons to communities.
Justice Reinvestment involves investing in upstream programs to support young people and families, and sport or other activities, and by enhancing access to quality education and employment.
The report also says Justice Reinvestment principles should be used to fund improvements to Indigenous mental health and alcohol and other drug services and programs.
In the article below, Professor Pat Dudgeon, Gerry Georgatos and Adele Cox, who helped to produce the ATSISPEP report, describe some of the roundtable consultations that informed their recommendations, and highlighted the importance of addressing intergenerational trauma.
The post is part of a mini #JustJustice series running at Croakey to coincide with Guardian Australia’s Breaking the Cycle project (which has featured a number of #JustJustice articles), and to mark the publication of the second edition of the #JustJustice book which features a chapter on Justice Reinvestment.
The Federal Government has yet to make a commitment on Justice Reinvestment or to introduce a justice target, as it has been long urged by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations, as part of its Closing the Gap strategy in response to yet another year’s poor report card, It has rather instructed the Australian Law Reform Commission to conduct an inquiry into the incarceration rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people – which will report at the end of this year.
Pat Dudgeon, Gerry Georgatos and Adele Cox write:
In developing the recommendations in the ATSISPEP report, a series of community-based and youth roundtable consultations were held, as well as the inaugural National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention Conference.
These consultations highlighted the impact of the high rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander imprisonment on suicidal behaviours.
A common observation was that imprisonment and contact with the criminal justice system was part of a matrix of factors that collectively contributed to suicidal behaviours (among other problems) in young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
A major theme from the community consultations was to “keep out of prison those who should not be there”, particularly young people with mental health and substance abuse disorders.
On March 20, 2015, the ATSISPEP facilitated a Justice Roundtable in Canberra at our partner organisation, the Healing Foundation.
A cross section of people and organisations were invited to best represent the intertwining issues affecting incarcerated Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, their families and communities.
These were some of the observations made by attendees:
“The prisons are full of people with mental health issues who should not be there. We have three psychiatrists here today that can attest to the fact prisons are full of people with undiagnosed mental health disorders.”
“We need to bring our leaders together from all over the country and work more closely together to influence change. Governments are failing to respond to us because they are not working with our leaders. Governments are not close to them. They work through other voices not closely aligned with our people and communities.”
“I am both Aboriginal and a Torres Strait Islander. In Cherbourg I managed a project to improve mental health and to reduce addictions. I have spent years working in the prison system as a clinician in mental health. My work has been more with the adults rather than youth. I am working with mothers and grandmothers to build support cultures. We’re all very invested in the need for outcomes.”
“Healing is about dealing with trauma”
The Justice Roundtable discussions also highlighted the impact of intergenerational trauma in contributing to over-incarceration, and attendees called for policy changes to ensure the mental health assessment of detainees and prisoners, and their access to quality mental health care and other treatments, psychosocial and cultural.
“The intergenerational trauma remains the biggest issue but when you get down it, no-one wants to talk about the intergenerational trauma. Governments want it swept under the carpet. If we do not deal with the intergenerational trauma then we will not be able to deal successfully with preventing suicides, we will continue to fail to lower incarceration rates.”
“The intergenerational trauma is real. We have to focus on it. Healing is about dealing with trauma.”
Attendees also raised concerns about the impacts of child protection authorities removing children from families.
One attendee said: “There is also a vital period after a child or children are removed from their families where the family members are shattered and are at heightened risks of self-harm and suicide. Who is looking after them at this time?”
Another said: “There is so much guilt, shame, hurt, anger and distress when a child or children are removed.”
Attendees wanted to see more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people working in prisons in mental and allied health services, and in wellbeing and healing programs, of which there are very few at this time.
They also called for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to be in executive management positions in these workforces, which would lead to more effective services and programs, and also help to address institutional and structural racism and discrimination.
The inaugural National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention Conference heard about the Western Australian-based Ngalla Maya reintegration program founded by a former inmate, CEO and founder, Mervyn Eades, a Nyoongar man.
On the smell of an oily rag, Ngalla Maya has achieved the positive reintegration into society of former inmates through training and education programs.
In the last 15 months, all 120 of its graduates – former inmates, 50 per cent females – have been supported by Ngalla Maya into employment.
“Our people in prison are damaged but most of them can be helped,” said Mervyn Eades.
Professor Pat Dudgeon, from the Bardi people of the Kimberley, a psychologist and academic at the University of Western Australia, chairs the ATSISPEP project.
Gerry Georgatos is the project’s community consultant and media liaison officer.
Adele Cox, a Bunuba and Gija woman from the Kimberley region, is the project’s Senior Indigenous Community Research Consultant.
• The #JustJustice team acknowledge and thank Western Sydney University for sponsoring stage two of the project, including a second edition of the book (with extra articles), the series at Croakey this week and related dissemination activities.
How you can support #JustJustice
• Download, read and share the 2nd edition – HERE.
• Buy a hard copy from Gleebooks in Sydney (ask them to order more copies if they run out of stock).
• Send copies of the book to politicians, policy makers and other opinion leaders.
• Encourage journals and other relevant publications to review #JustJustice.
• Encourage your local library to order a copy, whether the free e-version or a hard copy from Gleebooks.
• Follow Guardian Australia’s project, Breaking the Cycle.