Jailing is Failing: Rehabilitation in the Australian Prison System

A prison building

The women entering Australia’s prison system are invariably accompanied by significant histories of trauma and abuse. Some have had children forcibly removed, and many women are experiencing levels of self-harm and suicidal ideation that would be completely unacceptable if identified in the outside world.

Unfortunately, management of these women in prisons often takes an “out of sight, out of mind” approach, and can include solitary confinement or pharmacological interventions. In general, public opinion still favours this approach, with punishment far outweighing rehabilitation – the latter being viewed as a “soft” option for people who have offended.

But if we examine the statistics, as Dr Julie-Anne Toohey has, the inadequacy of the punitive approach becomes starkly clear. Dr Toohey is an Adjunct Fellow at the University of Adelaide’s School of Social Sciences and a lecturer in criminology at Melbourne’s Monash University. Much of her work focuses on better models of rehabilitation in prisons.

“We know that rates of reoffending in Australia remain consistently high. In Victoria, 43.6% of prisoners released during 2018–19 returned to prison within two years. This means that for every 100 prisoners who are released, over half of them will return to prison in less than two years,” Dr Toohey explains.

“Clearly, prisons are a failure in terms of preventing crime and reducing reoffending. What we do and how we operate simply isn't working.”

Rehabilitation is written into the mission statements of all Australian prisons, but the fact remains that while some prisons achieve a number of good outcomes in terms of reduced reoffending rates and vocational skill development, others do not prioritise rehabilitation.

Through her research, Dr Toohey makes a compelling humanitarian argument for rehabilitation in Australia’s prison system, and advocates for increased investment into holistic programs that teach important skills and promote self-worth.

“Imagine if those incarcerated women had access to trauma-informed care? Were helped to learn parenting skills that enabled them to regain custody of their children? Were provided with help for addiction?”

I fail to see how continually locking people up, generally for short sentences of 3-6 months which completely undermine their entire life in terms of employment and their connections with family and the broader community, is a strategy that helps either that person, or society more generally,” she asserts.

What’s next?

With her important research Dr Toohey has highlighted the clear benefits of rehabilitation programs in our prison system, and identified populations of people who are extremely likely to benefit from rehabilitation. Now, she is calling for increased investment into these programs long-term.

“There are certainly pockets of rehabilitation happening in our prisons, but as a holistic approach, there is still quite a way to go.”

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