Using A Culturally Safe Creative Writing Programme to Empower and Heal Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Men in Prison

Date01 December 2020
Published date01 December 2020
AuthorBARBARA NICHOLSON,ELENA MARCHETTI
DOIhttp://doi.org/10.1111/hojo.12383
The Howard Journal Vol59 No 4. December 2020 DOI: 10.1111/hojo.12383
ISSN 2059-1098, pp. 423–441
Using A Culturally Safe Creative
Writing Programme to Empower and
Heal Aboriginal and Torres Strait
Islander Men in Prison
ELENA MARCHETTI and BARBARA NICHOLSON
Elena Marchetti is Professor of Law, Griffith Law School, Griffith University,
Australia; Barbara Nicholson is Wadi Wadi Elder, Honorary Senior Fellow,
School of Law, University of Wollongong, Australia
Abstract: Interviews with 30 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander male prisoners who
attended a culturally safe creative writing programme entitled ‘Dreaming Inside: Voices
from the Junee Correctional Centre’, are used to explore how (re)connecting to culture
can help improve social and emotional well-being, and how the power of being heard
and being able to express feelings and thoughts through poetry and storytelling, can help
heal deep-seated emotional trauma and grief.This article addresses a gap in research and
theory regarding what types of prison programmesmay be of greatest benefit for Aboriginal
and Torres Strait Islander prisoners.
Keywords: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners; creative writing
prison programme; over-incarceration; post-colonial harms
The over-incarceration of Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
people is highly concerning, requiring a well-funded, co-ordinated, and
carefully considered approach to rectify. While state and federal govern-
ments have acknowledged the seriousness of the problem, made changes
to laws and policies, and introduced criminal justice interventions and di-
versionary programmes, Aboriginal and TorresStrait Islander people con-
tinue to be incarcerated at alarmingly high rates (Australian Law Reform
Commission 2017). Moreover, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peo-
ple entering prison are more likely than non-Indigenous prison entrants
to have an extensive prison history (Australian Institute of Health and Wel-
fare 2015), with approximately 75% having been previously incarcerated,
compared with 50% of non-Indigenous prisoners (Australian Bureau of
Statistics 2018). Studies show that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
people have high levels of mental health problems while in prison, which
continue post-release (Abbott et al. 2018). Mental health problems were
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2020 The Howard League and John Wiley & Sons Ltd
Published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd, 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK
The Howard Journal Vol59 No 4. December 2020
ISSN 2059-1098, pp. 423–441
found to not simply be a product of incarceration, but also a result of child-
hood trauma and the enduring impacts of colonisation on individuals, fam-
ilies, and communities. Wolff et al. (2015) recommend that for incarcerated
populations with high rates of trauma exposure and related mental health
diagnoses, treatment needs to be trauma-informed. When it comes to Abo-
riginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners, however, programmes also
need to be culturally safe, meaning the development and delivery of pro-
grammes by relevant Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations
and local communities with a focus on connection to culture and collec-
tive experiences (Australian Law Reform Commission 2017; Cunneen and
Tauri 2016). The ‘Dreaming Inside: Voices from the Junee Correctional
Centre’ (Dreaming Inside) programme is an example of a culturally safe
prison programme that uses creative writing as a tool for the Aboriginal
and Torres Strait islander men in prison to (re)connect to culture, and re-
gain self-confidence and self-esteem. The extent to which the programme
is able to do that, and in the process, heal harms caused by Australia’s his-
tory of colonisation, is the focus of this article.
The Dreaming Inside programme was conceived in 2010 by the sec-
ond author, when she visited the Junee Correctional Centre (JCC) (and
other non-prison locations) for the Write Around the Murray Festival.JCCis
located on Wiradjuri land, in the south of New South Wales. It houses pris-
oners whose offences have been committed throughout New South Wales.
For various administrative reasons, prisoners in New South Walesare often
moved from prison to prison, despite their place of residence or location of
their crime. After that initial visit, the second author and members of the
Black Wallaby Writers (a group of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
creative writers in the Wollongong, New South Wales area) decided to run
a creative writing and reading workshop with the Aboriginal and Torres
Strait Islander prisoners during NAIDOC week1in June 2012. The name
‘Dreaming Inside’ was coined by the men who participated in this work-
shop, reflecting the fact that the ‘Dreaming’ is the English word used by
Aboriginal and TorresStrait Islander people to describe their belief systems
and ways of being (Common Ground First Nations no date). Storytelling
continues to be used in relaying the oral traditions of the Dreaming and as
a tool for cultural maintenance. A product of that workshop was Volume
1ofDreaming Inside: Voices from Junee Correctional Centre. Seven years later,
Volume7 of the anthology was launched in May 2019. The aim of the pro-
gramme was to develop the creative writing skills of Aboriginal and Torres
Strait Islander men in prison, as a form of expression, and in the process,
improve their well-being. It was not to ‘offer literacy classes’ but rather to
get the men ‘thinking and writing creatively’ (Nicholson 2017, p.21).
The programme has been delivered differently over the years, but since
2013 it has featured five workshops run over three days, in May and Octo-
ber each year.The only requirement for participation in the programme is
that the men have an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander heritage and that
they have no active association alerts or restrictive protection status. De-
spite the majority of participants being Aboriginal, some voluntarily iden-
tified as Torres Strait Islander,therefore the programme has captured both
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2020 The Howard League and John Wiley & Sons Ltd

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