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Custodial Cultures – What Are We Breeding?

11 August 2016 at 8:36 am
David Crosbie
More revelations of horrific child abuse at the Nauru detention centre following on from the shocking footage of abuse in the Northern Territory youth detention centre Don Dale raise some fundamental issues for the charity and Not for Profit sector, writes David Crosbie, CEO of Community Council for Australia.

David Crosbie | 11 August 2016 at 8:36 am


Custodial Cultures – What Are We Breeding?
11 August 2016 at 8:36 am

Opinion: More revelations of horrific child abuse at the Nauru detention centre following on from the shocking footage of abuse in the Northern Territory youth detention centre Don Dale raise some fundamental issues for the charity and Not for Profit sector, writes David Crosbie, CEO of Community Council for Australia.


The culture of custodial institutions is never easy to manage. Whether we are talking about an off shore detention facility, a youth detention centre, a prison, secure mental health facilities or even a locked dementia ward in an aged care facility, there are some common elements. The role of maintaining security for all permeates and dominates. Safety for those being detained and the staff of the facility usually trumps all other considerations.

Having worked as a teacher in prison and youth training centres, having been responsible for a large residential drug treatment program (CEO of Odyssey House Victoria), I have been part of the best and the worst of institutional care.

In prison, I often found myself in conflict with custodial staff. At one stage I was locked in an isolation cell by security staff as a reminder of who was in charge. As prison chaplain Father Brosnan once patiently explained to an eager and frustrated young specialist teacher, “You skid a lot further on bullshit than you do on gravel.”

In the youth detention centre where I taught, the corrective staff had a daily mid-afternoon “happy hour” – a time when all the detainees were locked in their cells for an hour so the staff could relax and socialise.

The cultural clash between custodial staff and “naive outsider do-gooders” like me was omnipresent.

I now look back on that tension as a good thing for custodial systems. As outsiders we were pushing back against the view that all detainees needed to be kept permanently subdued and powerless, that this was about safety.

I am concerned when I see the roles of charities and Not for Profits in custodial settings being diminished across Australia. The privatisation of prisons, the exclusive government run and staffed youth detention centre, the global security company running off-shore detention facilities, all reflect a diminishing role for outsiders. Without outsiders, the dominant culture in custodial settings is often oppression and submission.

We need to rethink who runs our custodial settings and for what purpose? If Save the Children was running the Northern Territory youth detention centres, if the Smith Family was overseeing education within these centres, the level of physical and psychological abuse would be minimal at worse. The focus would be on rehabilitation and opportunity, not punishment and oppression.

Therapeutic communities, like the residential drug treatment program at Odyssey House where around 100 drug users in treatment live together, show how a focus on safety does not need to be a focus on punishment.  

Every person in that community, including staff, is responsible for the safety of the whole community and everyone in it. Therapeutic communities are a powerful expression of what can be achieved by working to empower people around their own behavior and the community they belong to. In my seven years at Odyssey House, I cannot recall one act of violence in the residential drug treatment program. Real safety is not about oppression.

I have also visited therapeutic communities in prisons around the world. They were generally much better places than their non-therapeutic equivalents. Interestingly, their effectiveness in reducing recidivism was increased significantly when they had strong external linkages to programs outside of prison.These external linkages – usually to charities and Not for Profits – often provided the opportunity to establish post-prison employment, housing and social networking options.

Involving charities and Not for Profits in working with people in custodial settings before their release is often the critical factor in achieving real reductions in crime and recidivism. What this means in practice is that the involvement of charities in these settings makes us all safer.

It is important to reinforce that charities and Not for Profits are not driven by delivering profits to their owners. Charities and Not for Profits exist solely to benefit the communities they serve. They are an expression of us, our concerns, our values, our willingness to make a difference in our communities.   

Custodial institutions now endure a culture of privatisation, cost cutting and isolation as they become increasingly closed off from the communities they operate in. These trends fuel increasing institutionalised oppression.

If we are serious about reducing recidivism and giving people an opportunity to become valued members of our communities, the Not for Profit sector must become part of changing cultures in custodial settings.

In every forum, including the new royal commission, the charity and Not for Profit sector needs to champion the benefit of investing in our shared values, in our potential to achieve positive change, in generating better economic returns and delivering safer communities.

Bearing witness to systemic failure is not acceptable. Custodial institutions may be a necessary part of our community response to troubled citizens, but the values they enact is up to all of us.   

About the author: David Crosbie is CEO of the peak Not for Profit organisation Community Council for Australia. He has spent more than 20 years as CEO of significant charities including five  years in his current role, four years as CEO of the Mental Health Council of Australia, seven years as CEO of the Alcohol and other Drugs Council of Australia, and seven years as CEO of Odyssey House Victoria.  

David Crosbie will be writing exclusively for Pro Bono Australia News on a fortnightly basis, covering issues of importance to the broader Not for Profit sector.

David Crosbie  |  @DavidCrosbie2

David Crosbie is the CEO of the Community Council for Australia (CCA).

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