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August 2008 Issue
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Safer prisons needed for Aboriginal offenders

 Indigenous Studies

A University of Adelaide lecturer and PhD student has been awarded a $25,000 Churchill Fellowship to investigate safer and more culturally appropriate prisons for Aboriginal offenders.

Elizabeth Grant will travel to New Zealand, Canada and Denmark later this year to look at a range of innovative measures for indigenous people in prison.

Ms Grant is a lecturer in Aboriginal Architecture at Wilto Yerlo within the Centre for Australian Indigenous Research & Studies. Her recently completed PhD research is the world's first empirical study examining the needs and preferences of Aboriginal offenders in a bid to reduce suicide and self harm in prisons. Her doctorate will be conferred this month at the University's August graduation ceremonies.

Ms Grant will spend time in New Zealand, studying specific facilities for Maori offenders, who make up 40% of the country's prison population. She will also visit Canadian Healing Centres which offer services and designs that reflect the culture of their indigenous people. The last leg of her trip will involve a study of the Scandinavian model of prison management, where security and human relations are closely intertwined.

Her interest in the area of Aboriginal incarceration was sparked by an experience in 2001 when Ms Grant accompanied an Aboriginal mother to the coroner's court as she sat through an inquest into her son's suicide in prison.

"The young man was not very likeable and the crimes leading to his incarceration were horrifying. He had been dealt a poor deck, led a hard, short life, finally dying a lonely death," she said.

Ms Grant said this experience exposed some critical shortfalls surrounding the accommodation of Aboriginals in custody.

"Why was he locked up alone when this is against Aboriginal cultural practices? How could someone in such pain and distress be placed in such an isolating and alienating environment? Had the prison environment hastened his death?"

Her PhD has focused on piecing together design guidelines for appropriate prison environments for Aboriginal offenders in Australia.

"These issues are not limited to Australia. Many other countries face the same problem of having a minority indigenous population constituting a large component of their prison population. There is much to be learned from their lessons," she said.

Story by Candy Gibson

For more information about Indigenous Studies visit Open Day (Sunday 17 August).

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Photo by David Ritter

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Elizabeth Grant
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