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An alternative solution to prison in the Northern Territory

Case Managers George Kypreos (left) and Alison Penny catch up with two clients from the Open House program.  

A pioneering community justice program in Darwin and Alice Springs has achieved significant success in its debut year.

In March last year, The Salvation Army partnered with the Northern Territory Correctional Services to begin delivering the program known as ‘Open House’. More than 150 referrals have now passed through the program.

Northern Territory AOD (Alcohol and Other Drugs) and Homelessness Manager Fred Docking said The Salvation Army’s social services recently celebrated 140 years in Australia with the Prison Gate program being one of the first.

“Our history in helping people to regain hope, rekindle joy and to fully participate in life was incremental when designing this program,” he said.

“The Salvation Army Positive Lifestyle Program (PLP), one of the programs provided by Open House, gives clients an opportunity to feel good about themselves, make better decisions and feel like they are a part of the community. It’s fundamental that clients feel they belong, regain their health, and live longer, happier lives.

“People who experience generational poverty and homelessness often don’t have a voice and cannot advocate for change to systematic barriers and disadvantage. Programs like Open House provide interventions that prevent people going to prison and is evidence for law reforms that encourage social equality.”

Unique project

The Australian Bureau of Statistics Prisoners in Australia 2020 reported more than 83 per cent of adult prisoners in the Northern Territory are Aboriginal, and a call for an increase in diversionary justice alternatives was reflected in the Northern Territory Aboriginal Justice Agreement 2021-2027.

Darwin has experienced a high number of referrals into the program, which picked up momentum since the justice community became aware of its mission.

“The idea of the Open House program is to enable a community response to people experiencing homelessness while being on remand,” said Ben Campion, Manager of Open House Darwin.

“Often young men and women are taken into custody, and this program offers an alternative solution. Many times, it’s for quite minor offending and they can be in there without being sentenced. So, people can participate in the program while they are waiting for their court appearance. We have a little capturing net of support and some other programming we have going on that tries to help them.”

Ben said Open House was a unique project due to its residential setting and support program.

About 80 per cent of referrals come from the court. Legal Aid and the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA) Indigenous law firm support the clients.

Gaining life skills

Open House partners with the community and local providers to give clients the best opportunities to gain life skills. In Darwin, the STEPS numeracy and literacy program delivers a service on-site and assists the clients with job and life skills ranging from how to use Microsoft Word, create a resume, and open emails to how to make someone a birthday cake, gardening skills, and how to feed a turtle.

“Once they finish with our service and go out to independent living, they have the skills to do better for themselves and not get back again in the same situation they were before.”

Other services include rehabilitation programs like the Darwin Indigenous Men’s Service (DIMS), which features cultural ‘yarning’ (an informal conversation that is culturally friendly and safe), such as talks about domestic violence and connecting the clients back to their culture and traditions.

The Salvation Army Moneycare program runs in both group and one-on-one sessions every fortnight. Group sessions also teach people how to stop ‘humbugging’ (making unreasonable demands from a family member) – such as asking for money from an aunt – and how to say no.

Team Leader at Open House Darwin, Drishtant (known as ‘Dee’) Banskota, said the varying programs at Open House encouraged clients to gain important life skills.

“Once they finish with our service and go out to independent living, they have the skills to do better for themselves and not get back again in the same situation they were before,” he said.

“The greatest benefit for clients has been getting them back to their families, which has been good and having that change (in their lives). When they come here, they are a different person to when they go back ... it’s like a different person.”

Peer mentoring

The Salvation Army Positive Lifestyle Program encourages clients to reflect on individual circumstances and to understand alternative life choices. Another beneficial component for the clients was living with other people at Open House and the organic positive peer mentoring that occurs.

When reflecting on the success of the past 12 months, both Ben and Dee commented on how the entire Open House team had undertaken great work with clients.

More than 50 planned outcomes have been achieved with clients in the Darwin program. Some have occurred after rebuilding connections locally with family members and the provision of a protective and supportive environment, while other outcomes have included clients starting work, finding private rental accommodation, or applying for public housing. Some are also supported into alcohol and other drug rehabilitation programs.

Another key component of the planned outcomes has been returning to remote communities after court approval.






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