Gaps in culturally informed healthcare put Aboriginal people at risk in Victorian prisons

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In her report Investigation into healthcare provision for Aboriginal people in Victorian prisons tabled today, Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass finds the lack of input by Victoria’s First Nations people into healthcare policy in prisons is having devastating effects on the health outcomes for them.

“Despite commitments at every level of government to Aboriginal peoples’ self-determination and Aboriginal-led solutions, the experiences of Aboriginal people in prison are often missing from discussions about policies that affect them,” Ms Glass said.

In the last ten years, the Ombudsman has tabled ten reports looking into prisons, but this investigation concerns a specific group of people and a specific issue about which there is much more to be done.

“Healthcare is the issue raised most often with the Ombudsman by people in prison and their advocates. And while healthcare is an issue for all people in prison, the available evidence shows that Aboriginal people suffer worse and more complex health outcomes than non-Aboriginal people in prison and in the community. I launched this investigation on that basis,” Ms Glass said.

For more than three decades, various authorities have looked into the reasons for the poor health outcomes of First Nations people and deaths in custody.

“These reviews made multiple recommendations to improve healthcare in prisons, some repeated over the years, and various Governments made multiple commitments to implement them. Yet little has changed, or at best, not enough,” Ms Glass said.

Recognising the need to hear Aboriginal peoples’ experiences we visited three major Victorian prisons:

  • the Dame Phyllis Frost Centre
  • the Melbourne Assessment Prison
  • Ravenhall Correctional Centre.

We also engaged with representatives of the Department of Justice and Community Safety, healthcare providers, as well as organisations and community representatives working with First Nations peoples in the prison system.

We heard stories of people being unable to access programs to address their drug use, having their ongoing medications abruptly stopped and resorting to doing their own ‘surgery’.

“Some of the things we heard were deeply confronting and distressing. What we heard also reflected that for Aboriginal people, health is holistic and includes not only physical but mental, social, emotional, cultural and spiritual wellbeing.

“We heard about a yearning for cultural connection. About the devastating impact a lack of cultural and family connection in prison can have, and what a huge difference it makes when they do receive cultural support with their healthcare needs,” Ms Glass said.

The Victorian Aboriginal Affairs Framework, the Aboriginal Justice Agreement and other policies commit the Government to enabling Aboriginal people’s self-determination. This report addresses gaps between Government’s commitments and the reality inside Victorian prisons. It provides recommendations to ensure self-determination is at the heart of decision making, policy and the delivery of healthcare in prisons.

“I am pleased the recommendations in this report have been accepted, at least in principle. For the sake of our over-incarcerated First Peoples, I can only hope this report finally provides the spur for change,” Ms Glass said.

Link to report

Link to Summary

Media contact: Katrina Palmer 0409 936 235 or