A not-for-profit organisation that supports former prisoners with mental illness has called on other community agencies to give their clients a chance.
Wellways, which offers the Detention Exit Community Outreach program, has backed up claims from the ACT Human Rights Commission, Prisoners Aid and the ACT Disability, Aged and Carer Advocacy Service that prisoners with disability are suffering delays in the processing of their NDIS applications.
But Wellways said the problem didn't stop there. Regional manager Lachlan Atyeo and program team leader Joanne Smith said even once packages were approved, many ACT service providers were reluctant to take on former detainees as clients, leaving some without essential services.
Mr Atyeo acknowledged some program participants had "done some terrible things" but said it was important to remember they were vulnerable people.
“If someone commits a crime and goes to prison, they go to prison for punishment. Once they’re released from prison that punishment should effectively cease," he said.
“When the agency does a risk assessment test on that person or a background check on that person to make sure it’s safe for their staff to be working one-on-one in the house, they’ll hit a bunch of red flags and the agency will say ‘that’s too high risk and we can’t support that person’.
“I think it’s important in the case where you’re working with people with complex backgrounds ... that you adjust your assessment or screening process accordingly to understand that.
"That’s a really challenging space because obviously the NDIS pays by the hour and doesn’t necessarily pay for you to spend more time doing assessments or background checks ... but again, once someone has a package they have a right to support."
The Detention Exit Community Outreach program supports people with a diagnosed mental illness who are exiting detention. Workers provide participants with intensive case management and psychosocial support for up to 18 months, helping them manage their mental health, build or rebuild relationships with friends and family, and find employment.
"But we don’t do personal care for people," Mr Atyeo said.
"So if that person does need personal care or help with showering, toileting, cleaning the house, that kind of stuff, the longer that gets delayed the harder and harder it becomes to support the person."
Ms Smith called on community sector organisations to "open their hearts and minds".
"I understand people's reluctance, that's human nature," she said.
"However, if people aren't given the chance to rehabilitate, given an opportunity to show they can change, particularly if you're talking about people who have offended because of mental illness and they're now being treated and they're stable, if you can't get someone to give them a chance then you're stuck."
ACT Council of Social Service director Susan Helyar said it was important that resources were available to build the knowledge, skills and capacity of community sector workers to work with people who had been involved with the criminal justice system.
On Friday, ACT Public Advocate Jodie Griffiths-Cook reiterated issues faced by detainees in working with the National Disability Insurance Agency, telling a Legislative Assembly committee there seemed "no urgency" in processing the packages of potential NDIS clients.
This meant some Canberrans were detained longer than necessary as they couldn't prove they had appropriate community supports, she said.
“It’s certainly a concern where there is a need and has been a need for us to advocate strongly to try and get those assessments taking place in a timely manner," Ms Griffiths-Cook said.
The National Disability Insurance Agency has previously denied that prisoners were treated any differently to the general population.
Ms Smith, of Wellways, said: "That may be policy, but certainly in my experience that's not the case."
The Detention Exit Community Outreach program has run in the ACT since 2015. Most participants have been men with a diagnosis of severe mental illness. Many have a history of substance abuse or misuse, did not finish high school and/or have spent half their adult life in detention.
Since 2015, of the 81 people who have participated in the voluntary program, six (7 per cent) have reoffended and three (3 per cent) were returned to detention after they breached parole conditions.
The figures are in stark contract to broader recidivism rates. The most recent Productivity Commission data showed almost 40 per cent of ACT adults released from prison returned to jail with a new sentence within two years.
Australian Bureau of Statistics data from 2017 showed 75 per cent of prisoners in the Alexander Maconochie Centre had been in prison before.
Detention Exit Community Outreach - funded by ACT Health - is currently oversubscribed.
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