The biggest challenge facing the rehabilitation of prisoners into the community was establishing a single, integrated method of support services.
That was the message from Deakin University's Professor Joe Graffam as he hosted a two-day conference in Canberra titled The Reintegration Puzzle.
"Exiting prisoners need co-ordinated services to help them with often complex conditions, including alcohol and drug addiction and mental illness," said Professor Graffam who is part of Deakin's Mental Health and Wellbeing Strategic Research Centre.
''They've got to be connected to some housing support, they've got to be connected to personal counselling and often drug and alcohol counselling, which they continue to get so they don't relapse."
This year's conference, the eighth to be hosted by Deakin, focussed on the physical, mental and social health of offenders and the impact of poor health on the reintegration of offenders after prison.
An impressive list of speakers presented at the conference, led by keynotes John Petrila, Professor in the College of Public Health, University of South Florida, and Stuart Kinner from the University of Melbourne.
The conference was particularly timely in light of the recently published Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report that found that 31% of prison entrants reported that they had been told by a doctor, psychiatrist, psychologist or nurse that they had a mental health disorder (including drug and alcohol abuse) in their lifetime.
This is about 2.5 times higher than the general population. Sixteen per cent of prison entrants were receiving medication for a mental health disorder and 14% reported experiencing very high levels of distress.
"The conference was extremely well received by attendees," Professor Graffam said.
"Common messages from presenters referred to the need for extensive "throughcare" - the need for integrated support services, and the importance of government-community-NGO partnerships for offender reintegration to be successful."
Professor Graffam also emphasised that it is typical for ex-prisoners to have experienced extreme disadvantage in addition to having committed crimes.
The conference provided fresh impetus for a range of the Mental Health and Wellbeing Strategic Research Centre projects including:
- the management of known sex offenders in the community
- Indigenous offender employment
- policing responses to child abuse
This research is producing results that are not only important to effective professional practice but which also inform the development of evidence based public policy that promotes the safety and wellbeing of Australian communities.