Few Victorians will have missed the warnings in recent years about a crisis in our justice system, particularly when it comes to youth offending and crowded prisons.
Of course community safety is a major issue for us all, but much more lies behind these stories than the front page headlines often convey. Filling in those gaps is part of the critical work of Jesuit Social Services, one of Mental Health Victoria's member organisations.
Some readers might wonder why an organisation that works in criminal justice is a member of a mental health coalition. But there is a very deep and direct connection between the two.
That can be seen clearly from the snapshot published by Victoria's Youth Parole Board about the young people it dealt with in 2017. It found that:
- 70 per cent were victims of abuse, trauma or neglect
- 53 per cent presented with mental health issues
- 30 per cent had a history of self-harm or suicidal ideation, and
- 41 per cent presented with cognitive difficulties that affect their daily functioning.
We see similar issues among adult offenders, with 49 per cent of prison entrants having a diagnosed mental illness.
A key message that we are hearing from Jesuit Social Services is that many Victorians end up in the prison system because primary support systems, like health and housing, have failed them.
In fact, it says, all too often they are behind bars because the prison system is the only system that can't turn them away.
In many places, as others have said, prisons are becoming the mental asylums of the 21st century. And like those asylums of old, our custodial system is not set up to provide that deep, therapeutic care that so many inmates need, not by a long shot. In fact too often it exacerbates the problems.
Many ... end up in the prison system because primary support systems ... have failed them.
Among many concerns, Jesuit Social Services has been warning about the mental health impact of solitary confinement, particularly on young people. It recently highlighted the case of a young man who was kept for up to 22 hours alone in his Victorian prison cell.
When James (not his real name) was released he found it difficult to cope. In his transitional accommodation he turned his bathroom into a cell, furnishing it with his radio, kettle and a toaster. He prepared his food there and slept in the bath. It may not surprise you to know he returned to custody soon after. It's easy to think he did so because he was a relentless offender. But it's more helpful to think about what he might have experienced – and what he might have needed – before he got involved in crime and then while he was in custody.
We were very pleased this month to hear Premier Daniel Andrews acknowledge that the Royal Commission into Mental Health will play an important role in easing the stress on the crowded prison system by looking at early intervention and prevention.
As he said: “It’s very difficult to be stable, to be productive, to be on a much better pathway if you’ve got untreated, undiagnosed mental health issues.”
It's even more difficult when you add other issues to the mix, including homelessness, racism, family violence, bullying, and poverty, which can all have a terrible impact on mental health.
We know there are many gaps in mental health and other support services in Victoria that, if filled, could be life-changing to those who end up in the system. There's also great promise in place and community-based rehabilitation and intervention programs like Justice Reinvestment that have been showing real benefits, including in regional areas like Bourke, NSW. These aim to invest in local supports, not bigger prisons.
We know the disproportionate spread of services means that gaps in supports are even bigger in regional Victoria. These communities often lack access to affordable health services, such as bulk-billing GPs and limited public transport options, making access to appropriate mental health support even more challenging.
Meaningful action on these issues includes access to specialist community mental health support, highly skilled staff in custody settings, and a network of connected services for when people like James need support to settle back into the community instead of back behind bars.
Our criminal justice system should not be punishing people for their illness.
Angus Clelland is chief executive of Mental Health Victoria.