Queensland’s criminal justice system is often described as a pipeline – a long, seemingly never-ending cycle, interchanging freedom and detention.
For some, it begins in childhood, and becomes nothing short of a way of life as they enter the adult system.
Often, this is born out of trauma, addiction, or poverty, sometimes spanning generations.
It’s a pipeline that it may seem impossible to break free from if one is so inclined – and results in institutionalisation.
In the face of soaring youth crime, the Queensland Government has responded by introducing tougher laws, and pledging millions to build new youth detention centres, in a bid to deliver justice to deserving victims, and make people rightly feel safer in their homes.
Queensland Law Society has previously called on the State Government and Opposition to consult experts in youth justice to implement measures that will work to address youth crime. This includes investigating models of incarceration that effect less harm not only on children, but adults.
At the Helana Jones Centre (HJC) in the Brisbane northside suburb of Albion, things are already being done differently – and it’s delivering results.
HJC is a low-custody centre which currently houses 22 low-security, female prisoners. Among them are mothers with young children – sometimes babies – capped at a maximum of eight children at any one time.
Chief Superintendent Darryll Fleming oversees the centre, which is attached to the Brisbane Women’s Correctional Centre.
With 35 years’ experience in Corrective Services behind him, Chief Supt Fleming has seen many models of service delivery over the years.
He said placing the women at the centre of the decision-making process had led to better outcomes, with lower recidivism rates.
“We need to relook at and reshape how we house women and why,” Darryll said.
“A lot of them start out as victims first, which has significant impacts – and we need to look at their journey and acknowledge the reasons that led them to being placed in custody.
“We individually assess each woman, rather than putting them in a particular box. Our policy setting is evidenced-based, trauma-informed, gender-specific assessments.
“Wherever practicable, we need to place these women in the least-restrictive environment possible.”
Moving to low security is a privilege that the women still have to work towards. They must have a record of good behaviour, a commitment to ongoing assessment, engagement and planning and cannot have committed serious violent crimes, or be sentenced to life in prison.
Each of the women are allocated a correctional officer to case manage them.
HJC Manager Paula Conway said this ensured they were given the opportunity to address all areas of what may have led them to offending behaviour, such as domestic and family violence, drug use, mental health issues, child safety and homelessness.
“We get to know them, their story, find out what led them here, and build each of them a tailor-made transition program,” Paula said.
“Our aim is to make sure they don’t come back.”
The alternative model of structured days at HJC keeps the women busy – with the focus being on setting them up with the skills and social capital to allow them to reintegrate into the community, stay connected – and give back.
Donated denim is repurposed at the centre for charities.
Photos courtesy of Queensland Corrective Services
Their days are filled with charity work, making 100 bags each fortnight out of donated denim which, in a full-circle moment, are given to other women leaving Brisbane Women’s Correctional Facility.
So far this year, they have also turned out more than 5000 bags sewn from old bed sheets to be filled with food parcels and necessities for the homeless and needy.
They process and grade Lions Recycle for Sight glasses for charities in third world nations, care for the cemetery grounds at Brisbane City Council Cemeteries at Nundah, Lutwyche and Nudgee, drawing praise from visitors for their work, and make items to raise funds for the BeUplifted breast cancer support organisation.
Paula said this work, partnered with the opportunity to study externally and complete parenting, mindfulness, and drug and alcohol courses at the centre, delivered them autonomy, accountability, and a sense of responsibility.
“A lot of the women have never had a job, or any skills, so for them to come out of here with these skills of sewing and crocheting is quite powerful,” she said.
“They really take pride in what they do – they are proud to be doing something that really makes a difference in the community.
“One of the women we had here got an ABN once she left us and started up her own business selling crocheted items on eBay, which has been really successful for her.
“It’s a bit bizarre to think you come to jail and learn to crochet, but it’s also really great.”
Employing a multi-agency, multi-disciplinary approach is key to the success of the HJC program – and it’s also clear that the staff don’t give up on any of the women who come into their care.
“We have a low staff turnover here – it is a satisfying place to work,” Paula said.
“You can really go above and beyond – it’s not a matter of locking people away – you can see their changes and progression and be a part of that.”
That commitment by the staff and the women themselves is equally rewarded through low recidivism rates by those who pass through HJC.
“For those that do come back, we see them returning for shorter periods of time – their timeline in the system decreases,” Paula said.
“It’s the small wins that count across an extended period.
“We are focused more on reintegration back into the community, whereas a lot of the public are caught up on the concept of ‘rehabilitation’.
“We do what we do in the hope people gain a more structured life.”
Senior policy solicitor Bridget Cook, who visited the centre along with QLS journalists, said she was struck by the centre’s untraditional appearance as opposed to a ‘traditional’ prison and also the brief time spent travelling there from the CBD.
“The factors that impact re-offending are complex however I think the effective application of initial screening procedures is an important preliminary process to maximise the unique, low-security, custodial model offered at Helana Jones,” Bridget said.
“The custodial model at HJC offers valuable data and important evidence which is critical to expanding the empirical basis for concluding that, for custodial sentences to be effective, it must not be based on punitive principles alone.”
Read more in Perspectives
Melissa Seiler is the Senior Media and External Affairs Advisor at QLS and recently visited the centre as part of Queensland Corrective Services media tour.