Cultural competency skills for Correctional Services Officers

Walking through Adelaide’s Rundle Mall on a sunny autumn afternoon revealed a snapshot of the city’s cultural diversity, made evident by multiple nationalities in the crowds of people, the international cuisine offered by restaurants and the conversations that could be heard in many languages and dialects. This diversity was an apt backdrop for the final Correctional Services Cultural Competencies Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) meeting in April.

According to the 2016 Census, nearly half (49%) of Australians had either been born overseas (first generation Australian) or one or both parents had been born overseas (second generation Australian)1. This expansion of cultural diversity in Australian society is reflected in the individuals entering the criminal justice system: the December 2018 statistics reported that 17% of Australian prisoners were born overseas. In addition to the cultures of those born overseas, 28% of the total Australian prisoner population2 identified as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander, in and of itself a very diverse culture.

With an increasing representation of offenders from various cultures, countries of birth, linguistic and religious affiliations, today’s Correctional Services Officers require the skills and knowledge to be able to effectively interact with prisoners, offenders in the community, their families and social support from Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) backgrounds. This includes taking cultural factors into consideration.

In 2018, the Corrections Industry Reference Committee (IRC) identified a need to enhance nationally recognised Correctional Services cultural competency training to ensure Corrections staff are sufficiently skilled to carry out their duties in a culturally respectful, inclusive and non-discriminatory manner. This decision was also influenced by  the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) Prison to Work (2016) Report, which set out the federal and states’ collective commitment to create positive pathways to employment from prison for all adult Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander offenders. One of the report’s recommendations was to include cultural competency training in vocational training programmes for Prison Officers3.

The Correctional Services Cultural Competencies TAC had a complex task finding the common job outcomes in an industry employing over 31,000 people across eight jurisdictions, each with its own unique local demographics. Up to that challenge were 15 volunteers from various Corrections, Community, Health and Education industry organisations and departments across Australia who first came together in October 2018.

Over the next six months, the TAC met on several occasions to review three existing Units of Competency and the packaging of cultural units within three qualifications in the Correctional Services Training Package. A significant change across all three units is the inclusion of the requirement for officers to be able to adapt their own work practices to ensure these are culturally safe.

The draft material was released for public consultation in February and again in March 2019. The consultation yielded feedback from individuals and organisations who work with culturally diverse offenders, former prisoners, their families and communities. A common thread in this feedback was the importance for learners to understand how cultural influences and perceptions affect behaviour and relationships between the same and different cultures. One example of how the TAC incorporated this feedback was to include a performance requirement of reflecting and evaluating one’s own attitudes and bias to identify possible effects on workplace relationships, and ways to improve own practices. After further review and consideration of all feedback received, the TAC agreed on the final changes to the draft material during the meeting in Adelaide on 17 April, with a recommendation for support for submission by the Corrections IRC. With the IRC’s support, a Case for Endorsement is now being prepared for submission to the Department of Education and Training for consideration by the Australian Industry and Skills Committee (AISC) in August.

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  1. Australian Bureau of Statistics: 2071.0 – Census of Population and Housing: Reflecting Australia – Stories from the Census, 2016
  2. Australian Bureau of Statistics: 4517.0 – Prisoners in Australia, 2018
  3. Prison to Work Report (2016)