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Prisoner advocates say a lack of programs at Darwin Correctional Centre is contributing to the NT's high reoffending rates

By Samantha Dick, ABC News, 11 July 2022

A lack of effective rehabilitation programs at Darwin's only adult prison is contributing to the Northern Territory's staggering reoffending rates, legal advocates and former prisoners claim.


Key points:

  • The Northern Territory has the highest rates of recidivism in Australia
  • Former prisoners say better rehabilitation programs would help prepare them for life after release
  • NT Correctional Services Commissioner Matthew Varley says the NT government has allocated more funding for prisoner services

Rocket Bretherton, who used to be caught in a revolving door of drug addiction and jail time, has experienced it first hand. 

"Every day you think, 'I'll give up after this' or you wish you could stop, but you physically cannot," she said. 

That was until her last stint behind bars a few years ago at Darwin Correctional Centre, where a support program helped Ms Bretherton finally break the cycle. 

"The facilitator at the time was great," she said.

"She was the first person that actually believed in me."

The Women of Worth program, run by the Northern Territory branch of women's organisation YWCA, was aimed at connecting incarcerated women with support networks, helping them reintegrate back into society.

It was defunded in February last year.

Another former prisoner, who benefited from the program and spoke to the ABC anonymously, said "it was the only time of the week that you felt like a person". 

"They didn't care if you were black or white, old or young or whatever, they treated us all equally," she said. 

The scrapping of the Women of Worth program was just one example of the lack of programs on offer for female inmates, Ms Bretherton claims. 

"The public think you're going in there to get rehabilitated, you work on all your problems and you come out a better and bigger person — but that's not true," she said.

"You come out angry at the world."


'Setting them up to fail'

Women make up less than 10 per cent of the adult prisoner population at Darwin Correctional Centre, which is currently holding about 1,200 inmates.

Most of them are Indigenous men.

Beth Wild, principal legal officer at the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA), said although male prisoners had more options than women at Darwin prison, access to programs was "terrible in general". 

"The ability to access programs for prisoners on remand is woefully poor," she said, adding male prisoners on remand could complete a basic alcohol course but "very little else".

"Something like 40 per cent of the prisoner population is on remand, which is the highest it's ever been."

Ms Wild said many programs for men who had been sentenced had long waiting lists, and were offered in English only. 

Rachael Uebergang from the YWCA said a shortfall of housing support for incarcerated people was also "setting them up to fail". 

"People are getting tired and frustrated by rates of crime," she said. 

"But I think in order to bring those rates down, we actually do really need to support people."


Reoffending costing the community

Data shows the Northern Territory has the highest rates of reoffending in Australia — an ongoing issue that comes at a huge financial cost.

The NT government spends about $338 per prisoner per day to house roughly 1,749 inmates across the territory, according to the NT Attorney-General department's 2020-21 annual report. 

That's nearly $600,000 per day. 

"The community ought to be outraged that we're spending so much money on these prisons without it reducing crime," Ms Wild said.

Ms Uerbergang said the Women of Worth program helped reduce recidivism rates by supporting incarcerated women to pursue training, education and employment before and after their release. 

"Where women maintained connection with the program and their case manager in the period after their release from prison, there was a 69 per cent reduction in reoffending," she said. 

"There are significant cost savings because of the success of the program in terms of keeping women out of prisons, so it's disappointing for us that the program is not ongoing."


Pandemic affected program delivery, Commissioner says

In a statement, NT Correctional Services Commissioner Matthew Varley said the COVID-19 pandemic had "affected the delivery of programs and support services in all facilities".

"Programs delivered in any given week will vary depending on the prioritised need of the prisoners, and the availability of resources and program providers," Commissioner Varley said.

He said the programs at Darwin Correctional Centre included:

  • offence-based rehabilitation programs aimed at behavioural change
  • educational programs including maths and literacy courses
  • employment programs and job opportunities at the facility, such as yard maintenance
  • personal development programs like sport, art and music.

Commissioner Varley said the NT government had allocated more funding in its 2022 budget for NT Correctional Services to "move forward with a multi-year change agenda that includes improving outcomes for prisoners".

In the eyes of Ms Bretherton, change couldn't come soon enough. 

"I don't know how the government can expect recidivism rates to go down when they're not working with the people in there to better themselves," she said.

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