Catholic Health Australia striving to improve outcomes for prisoners

By Brigid Meney, 4 November 2022
Bishop Vincent Long OFM Conv celebrates Mass for the prisoners at John Morony Correctional Complex. Image: Diocese of Parramatta.


Catholic health providers have a long and robust history leading society and governments when it comes to caring for the most vulnerable. Fearless and without reserve or judgement, we recognise the dignity and worth of all people and their right to care, compassion, and healing.

Where society and even governments can sometimes draw the line in supporting those they deem “deserving”, our faith challenges us to see Christ in all, sometimes a grave struggle in this flawed world.

But just as Jesus offered redemption and forgiveness to thieves and tax collectors, so must Catholics routinely consider our similarly marginalised, prisoner population.

Australia’s prison system is in crisis, highlighted this week when Federal Assistant Minister for Treasury Andrew Leigh said the nation’s incarceration rate has more than doubled since the mid-1980s, even though most crimes have fallen. In 1985, it was 96 prisoners per 100,000 adults. Today it is 202.

This, he says, is more to do with stricter policing and sentencing than crime rates, and is costing taxpayers billions of dollars each year, in what he has previously dubbed the “second convict age”.

Dr Leigh is backed by University of South Australia Emeritus Professor of Law and Criminal justice Rick Sarre, who says that, rather than locking people up: “If you pump [funds] into welfare services, child protection, Indigenous mentoring, mental health support, supplementing income for families in crisis, then you’re going to get far better bang for your buck than waiting for people to screw up and putting them behind bars.”

Catholic Health Australia, guided by our Social Justice Committee, has been considering our obligations as Catholics in this space, after hosting a recent forum to discuss the needs of the prisoner in modern society. Welcoming a group of experts from academia, correctional health, prison chaplaincy and pastoral care, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups, as well as transitional care and housing, the issues in this space were dissected with rigour.

And the issues were vast.

From a health perspective, when an individual enters the prison system it can be an ideal time to provide a thorough and holistic health assessment, something they may not have ever experienced prior due to the high rate of social disadvantage. It’s the perfect opportunity to diagnose and put in place management plans for chronic conditions, including mental health, of which 40 per cent of the prisoner population reportedly is experiencing.

But CHA’s forum found that all too often this opportunity for proper ongoing care of the vulnerable is lost, through gaps in transitional care, housing, employment, and the prison workforce itself.

A period of incarceration can exacerbate or lead to a person’s disconnectedness from mainstream society. It can result in family breakdown and inter-generational transfers of disadvantage.

But there is currently no effective system for the re-integration of people into the community on their release. Their transition back into mainstream society suffers because there is no real focus on their need for safe housing, clothing, education, personal safety, employment, financial support and information on how to navigate support systems.

Too often we see our prison system’s aims in light of time efficiently and diligently served, rather than what happens to people after they leave prison, and how successfully they transition back to being a contributing member of society. Without this goal at the forefront of the system, recidivism is likely and the cycle continues, especially among some communities.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are vastly overrepresented in our prisons, totalling around 30 per cent of inmates, and are more likely to experience chronic conditions including asthma, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Their disproportionate incarceration rates have a severe impact on the communities they come from, and to which they ultimately return.

As Catholics, we must understand that Jesus provided the ultimate guidebook here, dying for the salvation of those individuals in prison just as readily has he died for the salvation of the saints.

Pope Francis has led by example, in his words and actions. Along with choosing to wash the feet of prisoners on Holy Thursday each Easter, in 2019 he said: “The aim of a prison sentence should be to educate and prepare people to return eventually to society as law-abiding and contributing citizens, but that often is not the case because of a lack of resources to address the social, psychological and family problems experienced by detainees.”

Parts of our Catholic community are working hard in this space, including prison chaplains and social services providers. By hosting this forum, Catholic Health Australia aims to do much more.

Firstly, more needs to be done to improve the connection of health and social services, to assist in a supported and rigorous transition experience. There is an obvious relationship between rehabilitation and the extent to which the physical, mental, social and pastoral needs of prisoners are addressed.

We also need to address the structure of the corrections workforce. This includes the shortage of suitably skilled staff, including staff in clinical and post-release roles, as well as to the amount of supervision provided to the workforce. Given this workforce will encounter significant trauma daily, more specialised support, skills and training with a focus on rehabilitation should be on offer.

With the overrepresentation of our First Nations communities in the prison system, Catholic voices and leadership bodies need to speak up against this injustice, applying pressure for systemic reform that addresses the root cause.

Part of the problem is that there is no strong prisoner voice at the decision-making table. There is no national advocacy group that directly represents the rights and needs of prisoners, and certainly none that specifically represents First Nations prisoners, though legal services often fill this void where they can. This means that within the public/private partnership models of prisons, when decisions by government or industry are made or changed, there is very little, if any, time given to listening to a prisoner’s experience.

This is hardly surprising. There is no avoiding the fact that there are individuals in our prison system who have committed crimes, some truly awful. Much of society isn’t interested in providing a voice, funding or sympathetic ear to them. But as Catholics, we know that care and compassion is to be shown to all, and ultimate salvation is open to all. Perhaps this is one area the Australian Church and its ministries could focus on, with the latest document on the Synod calling for “a Church capable of radical inclusion”.

As a broader society, when considering the purpose of our prison system, we need to be able to distinguish between those who are a real and present threat, and those we punish for breaking the law. This is the only way can we start to eliminate the stigma, evaluate the ultimate aims of the system, and make it fit for purpose with a focus on safety and rehabilitation.

CHA is eager to do more to advocate on behalf of prisoners and their families. We welcome the input from individuals with experience in this space who would like to be more involved.

Brigid Meney is the Director of Strategy & Mission for Catholic Health Australia.

Each year on the first Sunday of November, the Catholic Church in Australia marks Prison Sunday, bringing attention to the plight of prisoners and highlighting the important work that prison chaplains undertake. In 2022 Prison Sunday will be commemorated on November 6. For more information and resources on Prison Sunday, visit the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference website here.



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