Red Cross prisons program leads to decrease in prisoner violence

20 May 2021 - A second cohort of women prisoners is today graduating from an innovative prison health and wellbeing program, run by Red Cross in prisons around Australia and internationally.

Today’s graduation of 11 women in the Townsville Women’s Correctional Centre follows a Flinders University evaluation last year which found the program lead to:

  • 15% decrease in prisoner on prisoner assaults
  • 23% decrease in incidences of self-harm
  • 66% decrease in possession of illicit substances
  • 75% of volunteers feeling “not the same” as when they went in, having improved self-confidence and a sense of worth
  • 50% of volunteers feeling hopeful and positive about the future.
  • Prison community reported feeling safer and that there were improved relationships between prison officers and prisoners

The Sisters for Change program started in Townsville in 2018, with the first cohort of volunteers graduating in November 2019. Through COVID-19, existing volunteers supported the prison’s response through educating their community about hygiene practices and supporting the mental health of the women while regular activities and visits were suspended due to the pandemic.

Townsville Correctional Complex is one of four prisons in Australia currently running Red Cross’ Community Based Health and First Aid Program (CBHFA) with a fifth to come online soon. It is modelled on the acclaimed Irish Red Cross Prisons Program, which won the 2011 World Health Organisation Award for best practice in prison health and has seen a 13% decrease in recidivism rates among CBHFA volunteers upon release compared to the general population.

CBHFA recruits prisoners to become special status Red Cross volunteers. The volunteers are then trained in modules including first aid, mental health first aid and community development, allowing them to effectively engage with and consult their community. The training includes many elements that will support volunteers after being released, helping with reintegration and taking up new opportunities. In the Townsville site, the volunteers are supported by Elders for Change – a group of respected Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders from across north Queensland. Elders support women’s initiatives, including running grieving sessions.

Red Cross CBHFA facilitator Rachel Montgomery said while the data about improvements are encouraging some caution is needed due to the small population size.

“We are monitoring the impact,” she said. “The volunteers are supported to analyse the health and wellbeing needs of the prison community and develop and implement projects which address these needs in partnership with prison officers and with support from Red Cross.”

Townsville Correctional Complex General Manager, Chief Superintendent Louise Kneeshaw said  Queensland Corrective Services were proud to continue to partner with Australian Red Cross to support the welfare of women in custody.

“QCS is dedicated, through programs like Sisters for Change, to the delivery of rehabilitation and education services to target employability, education, family and parenting skills, and psychological wellbeing,” Chief Superintendent Kneeshaw said.  It is important we can provide these women with the opportunity to improve their own wellbeing and being able to transfer their skills once they leave our care has long lasting benefits for the whole community.” 

In the latest program women received certified training in:

  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Mental Health First Aid. Five days of knowledge sharing about mental health issues in the community (depression, anxiety, psychosis and substance use), as well as how to respond to mental health crises (suicidal thoughts and behaviours, self-harm, panic attacks and traumatic events). Sisters for Change who have completed this course are now approved to visit and provide support to women who experience suicidal ideation or self-harm.
  • Cultural Capability and Competency . Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander, South Sea Islander and non-Indigenous women gained skills and confidence in how to communicate and engage appropriately with diverse Aboriginal people and communities. This has enabled them to respect and understand cultural differences and the significance of culture to health and wellbeing.
  • Emergency Life Support. The special status volunteers learned how to respond to choking, bleeding arteries, anaphylaxis, asthma attacks, snake bites, heart failure and drowning; skills that will save lives both inside and outside the jail.
  • Harm Reduction. The Queensland Injectors Health Network lead sessions on what it means to be a peer educator, the value of lived experience and opportunities in everyday interactions to share knowledge that can reduce harm, promote health and save lives.

Eleven women graduate in a ceremony today as Sisters for Change, with another 10 as mentors. The remaining women have returned to the community. Three of those have become on-going volunteers with Red Cross, supporting the sisters from outside.

The ceremony will be planned, run and catered for by incarcerated women, with local Elders, Correctional officers and dignitaries from community as guests. The graduation will feature poetry, artwork, speeches, and cultural dance performed by women from across North and Western Queensland.

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