Corrections Victoria strategic response to the needs of the workforce and individuals in custody

Interview

Larissa Strong

Commissioner of Corrections Victoria, Australia

In this interview with Larissa Strong, Commissioner of Corrections Victoria, we discuss the recent significant reforms designed to enhance service delivery and meet both government and community expectations. Among the topics explored are the innovative strategies to address the complex needs of a diverse prisoner population, initiatives aimed at boosting staff capabilities and retention, and the integration of technology to improve rehabilitation outcomes.

Could you provide an overview of the current landscape within Corrections Victoria and outline the most pressing challenges you face in this role?

LS: The landscape of corrections is constantly changing and as an organisation, we need to adapt our system and service delivery accordingly to meet Government and community expectations. 

While we have seen a welcome decrease in the prison population, the proportion of the incarcerated population with complex needs has increased and our work to deliver better outcomes intersects with many other portfolios and systems. For me, these two factors mean that stewardship and growing organisational capability are critical. 

In March 2023, the final report of an independent review into the culture, systems and processes within our prisons – the Cultural Review of the Adult Custodial System – was published. The report’s recommendations represent the most significant and wide-ranging changes to the corrections system in decades and are crucial for guiding the transformation of our corrections system over the next ten years and beyond. 

Like many jurisdictions, in Victoria we are facing a soft labour market and increased competition for frontline talent. The development of the corrections workforce, multi-disciplinary teams and supporting prison officers to deliver on the challenging ask of them and demystifying the work that they do is one of my most pressing challenges.

What key reform policies have been implemented to address the mentioned report, and how do these efforts contribute to organisational change within Corrections Victoria?

LS: Last year, Corrections Victoria launched a new vision and mission statement to guide our work programme over the next ten years. Importantly, the vision and mission were developed in collaboration with our staff to ensure that it was something that held meaning for them and that they could use as a touchstone in their day-to-day work, as well as something that drives organisational business plans. 

Our current vision is “Safer prisons, safer people, safer communities”, with a mission for “A safer, smarter system, with a skilled and supported workforce, that enables people in our care to make better decisions.”

A new Correctional Practice Framework (CPF) has been developed as a foundation piece for our work programme. It outlines the evidence base that Corrections Victoria draws from and the practice principles that our system needs to adopt to reduce reoffending.

A capability framework from which we can then redesign our training and professional development will stem from this work. 

The focus on workforce is really a focus on outcomes – we know that development of a professional alliance between staff and people in custody is the single most important factor in supporting rehabilitation. 

Investing in the prison workforce supports all aspects of reform.

In terms of our programmatic response, the Inside Jobs / Outside Jobs strategy has been an enormous focus of organisational effort as we seek to use the education and on-the-job training available in prison to link people to jobs upon release. 

This approach recognises the powerful difference having a job can make to a successful return to the community. 

As part of the Inside Jobs/Outside Jobs strategy, Centre of Excellence VET programmes operate out of six prisons, and Employment Hubs operate out of all medium and minimum security prisons. 

The two Centre of Excellence programmes are in civil construction and welding. Weld Australia recently recognised our work through an outstanding Social Project in Welding award. Employment Hubs provide the critical link between qualifications and experience on the inside and employers on the outside. 

In just over a year, the Employment Hubs have placed 211 people into sustainable employment following release.

What programmes and initiatives would you highlight? And how do they align with Corrections Victoria’s long-term objectives?

LS: We need to do better at being responsive to the needs of all people in custody. Reducing the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the prison system is one of our highest priorities. 

In September 2023, we opened an Aboriginal Healing Unit at our maximum-security women’s facility to provide a culturally safe space and programmes for Aboriginal women in custody. The Healing Unit is designed to be a space for Aboriginal women to reside and undertake tailored, community-led and trauma-informed programmes. 

It aims to reduce recidivism by addressing the underlying causes of offending, using cultural strengthening as a protective factor. An Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisation delivers programmes and services in the unit and is on site five days a week. 

In partnership with the Aboriginal Justice Caucus, we have recently finalised our Aboriginal Wellbeing Officer Recruitment and Retention Strategy. Through the provision of ongoing welfare, advocacy, and case management support to Aboriginal people in our care, Aboriginal Wellbeing Officers are key to reducing Aboriginal over-representation in prison.

The Recruitment and Retention Strategy recognises and responds to the challenges experienced by Aboriginal staff and proposes specific initiatives to better attract, support and retain Aboriginal staff in these positions.

In 2020, Corrections Victoria established the Prison Disability Support Initiative for people in custody with a cognitive impairment. This service comprises of a multi-disciplinary team, including Clinicians and Disability Support Officers. 

The team provides assessment and diagnosis, develops behavioural support plans to assist in custodial management, and one-on-one clinical consultations. The programme also assists people leaving prison to access and engage with disability services in the community. 

Photo of one of the spaces at the new Aboriginal healing unit at Dame Phyllis Frost Centre

With the increased use of technology across Victoria’s public prisons, offering access to a range of educational and rehabilitative resources, can you share insights into how this technology has impacted prisoner rehabilitation and the broader goals of the correctional system?

LS: One good thing to come out of COVID-related restrictions, is that it provided the catalyst to embrace the use of technology to support basic prison services. 

Close to 350,000 video visits were conducted between May 2020 and February 2022 – and by way of context, we didn’t have video visits prior to March 2020. Video visits are here to stay, as they provide a valuable complement to contact visits. 

During the first 12 months of COVID-related restrictions, 96% of court hearings moved to TeleCourt. TeleCourt is also here to stay and 89% of matters continue to be heard this way, providing a complement to in-person Court appearances where appropriate.

Of all the technologies we have introduced, body scanning technology has probably had the most profound impact, significantly reducing the number of strip searches conducted over the past year. This work forms part of our commitment to trauma-informed procedures. It’s a win-win, the body scanning technology is both better at detecting contraband, but also provides a better experience for both staff and people in custody.

We have had computers available to people in custody to support their education and legal preparation for several years. We are currently trialling an expansion of this capacity – the Offender Services Network – which is a bespoke intranet that may be accessed in-cell. Beginning in April, people in custody at three lower security prisons now have access to online resources about prison information, legal briefs and representation, education modules and family and friends on the approved visitor list. In particular, controlled access while in-cell presents an opportunity to reduce hard copy mail coming in (and with that the risk of contraband) as well as to support family engagement and rehabilitation. 

Can you share other highlights of your progress in the modernisation of Victoria’s prisons?

LS: I genuinely believe that a dedicated and professional workforce is the most important key to a modern corrections system that contributes to community safety. 

In addition to our focus on prison officer training and professional development, Corrections Victoria has also invested in its own clinical arm – Forensic Intervention Services – to deliver offence-specific interventions and to grow our expertise in how to best support behaviour change. 

Infrastructure is also a critical enabler. Corrections Victoria has been very fortunate in the Victorian Government’s investment in modern facilities. This investment includes architecture that has in-built features in its design that support safety and rehabilitation. 

Our new accommodation units house plenty of programme and interview rooms, where acoustics and fittings have been designed to support engagement. Last year we opened new accommodation at our main women’s prison, which incorporated design feedback from the women in custody.

Openness to the experience of others is also critical to a modern prison system and an important counter to doing things a certain way because they have always been done that way. Corrections Victoria is just one of the few jurisdictions outside of the United States to be operating the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program Think Tanks. These Think Tanks support people in custody to work collaboratively with university students and allow us to better include the voices of people with lived experience to continually improve our system.

Under our ten-year Safer, Prisons, Safer People, Safer Communities reform agenda we are also formalising structures to harness the expertise and perspective of our workforce – supporting the development of policies and programmes that will make a difference and their implementation on the ground.

Larissa Strong

Commissioner of Corrections Victoria, Australia

Larissa Strong has been the Commissioner of Corrections Victoria since June 2020. Larissa brings to the role a record of achievement in leading large scale, service delivery and operational environments. Her experience includes roles such as the Deputy Commissioner of Offender Management, as Executive Director of Justice Health and Project Director of the Ten-Year Mental Health Plan in the Department of Health and Human Services.

 

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