Correctional Healthcare

Addressing the cultural needs of the Aboriginal prison population

Indigenous Australians make up more than a quarter of Australia’s prisoner population while constituting only 2.5 per cent of the Australian population (according to the 2013 Australian Institute of Criminology ‘deaths in custody‘ monitoring report). Accordingly, addressing Indigenous over-representation in custody requires innovative thinking and cultural sensitivity, with  design being one approach that could help mediate the impacts of incarceration.

Dr Elizabeth Grant, Senior Lecturer and Researcher at The University of Adelaide

Dr Elizabeth Grant, Senior Lecturer and Researcher at The University of Adelaide

In the lead up to the 5th Annual Correctional Services Healthcare Conference 2014, we had the chance to speak to Dr Elizabeth Grant, Senior Lecturer and Researcher at The University of Adelaide who will be presenting at the event on the topic “Prisons for Aboriginal and Torres Island People – Meeting Physical and Mental Health Needs”.

Elizabeth Grant is an architectural anthropologist and a prominent researcher in the field of people-environments (or behaviour-environment studies) and overlays the fields of architecture and anthropology  to understand the use of Indigenous spaces and places from an inter-disciplinary perspective. Elizabeth Grant’s research interests include Indigenous architecture,  Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander architecture and environments, Aboriginal housing and homelessness, Indigenous children’s learning and play environments, prison, court and other design for the criminal justice arena and culturally sustainable design. She is interested in ascertaining congruence or ‘fit’ between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ behaviours and the design of physical environments. Dr Grant has worked as a consultant on many recent Australian and international prison planning projects and her work has led to major changes in the way prisons, courts and other environments are designed for Indigenous users.

What was it that originally prompted your interest in Indigenous architecture and environments?

Elizabeth: I had been researching in the area of Aboriginal architecture and housing for a decade or so when I accompanied an Aboriginal mother to the coroner’s court in 2001. She was attending the 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. .

This experience exposed some critical shortfalls surrounding the accommodation of Aboriginal men in custody and I started to wonder why 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?

Since then among other research into Aboriginal architecture, I have focused on piecing together design guidelines for appropriate prison environments for Aboriginal offenders in Australia. I conducted the first doctoral research  examined Aboriginal people’s preference for prison environments which was completed jointly through the School of Architecture, Landscape Architecture and Urban Design at the University of Adelaide and the Aboriginal Environments Research Centre at the University of Queensland. I have since published widely in the field, worked as a consultant on many Australian and international prison planning projects and my work has led to major changes in the way prisons, courts and other environments are designed for Indigenous users. It is humbling to be recognised as an international expert on the design of Indigenous custodial environments.

How can an environment impact human behaviour?

Elizabeth: Prison environments are typically inflexible to the cultural needs of groups and additional pain is often felt by particular groups. Matching the prison environment to the cultural needs of the group through the provision of congruent, familiar, legible and meaningful environments is one of the most important aspects of reducing the user’s stress levels. The most important aspects are allowing for:

  • Connections to Country
  • Connections to Kin
  • Being part of a Social grouping
  • Meeting Health and Safety needs
  • Allowing Information Flow

Aboriginal peoples often fare very poorly in prison environments, large numbers of Aboriginal peoples enter the prison system with chronic illnesses, substance abuse problems, learning and cognitive disabilities and mental illness, the numbers of Aboriginal prisoners dying prison custody continues to be unacceptably high[1] and as a group, Aboriginal prisoners continue to face multiple layers of social disadvantage.

As well as these impacts, the experiences of incarceration have profound effects on the wider Aboriginal population. As part of the criminal justice system, incarceration fosters and compounds Indigenous anger,  often leading to greater levels of fear and frustration within communities. The significance of the prison environment, its impact on Aboriginal prisoners and the flow on effects to Aboriginal families, communities and the wider community becomes increasingly important when the increasing rate incarceration of Aboriginal peoples in the Australian prison system is considered. It has been suggested that Indigenous imprisonment would be “near or at the top of any world league table”.  Between 2000 and 2013, the number of Indigenous prisoners rose by 11 per cent with Indigenous prisoners representing 25 per cent of the total Australian male prisoner population in 2013.  Nationally, an Indigenous person was 13 times more likely to be in prison in 2013 than a non-Indigenous person.

Do you think real improvements are being made in meeting the needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, both within the prison setting and in society in general?

Elizabeth: There have been some advancements. The recently opened West Kimberley Regional Prison was designed under a community consultation model which recognised Indigenous inmates’ cultural, kinship, family and community responsibilities and spiritual connections to land.  The prison accommodates 120 male and 30 female prisoners of varying security classifications, in separate areas for men and women.  Accommodation comprises of self-care housing units, arranged so that prisoners can be housed according to family ties or language groupings and security ratings.

Aboriginal families in the Kimberley region tend to locate their homes or camps in a radial manner aligning with the direction of their ‘country’. These arrangements are mirrored in the housing clusters and prisoners can live with countrymen in housing aligning with their traditional lands. Providing ‘normalised’ self-care cottage accommodation at West Kimberley Regional Prison was a cost effective measure to enhance prisoner’s capacity to develop living, communication and negotiation skills required on release. Each housing unit sleeps six to eight inmates and is designed around a communal style of living concept with individual cells, ablutions, kitchen and dining and living areas which reflect similar house plans in Kimberley Aboriginal communities. Sleeping arrangements in minimum security housing units are flexible.  Each housing unit contains shared and single rooms and outdoor sleep outs are provided to allow prisoners to sleep outside.

Looking to the future,  it is possible to envisage a time society imprisons less people and where prisons are different. It is possible to imagine small scale prisons sited on traditional country where the families and kin of prisoners can visit more easily. It is feasible to imagine Aboriginal prisoners living in normal housing with their countrymen. Prisons can be different. If society decides that the deprivation of liberty is the only punishment then one can imagine a place where it is possible to feel the sun and wind on your face. One can conjecture physical environments where Aboriginal needs are included in the design as a result of meaningful consultation with Aboriginal prisoners. Success is dependent on the ability of correctional authorities to embrace and respect Indigenous cultural knowledge, cultural practices, healing and learning systems within their philosophies.

[1]Jacqueline Joudo and Jane Curnow, Deaths in Custody in Australia: National Deaths in Custody Program Annual Report (2008).

To find out more about the 5th annual Correctional Services Healthcare conference and to register, please visit the conference website.

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