An interview with Stan Winford, RMIT Centre for Innovative Justice

People with mental ill health and cognitive impairments are significantly overrepresented in the Victorian criminal justice system. Corrections Victoria research in 2011 estimated that 42% of male and 33% of female prisoners had an Acquired Brain Injury (ABI). Lack of appropriate supports for people with disability, coupled with stigma and discrimination, perpetuate cycles of disadvantage and lead to increased contact with the criminal justice system.

As just one example, a person with ABI may have memory troubles that make it harder to remember and comply with the requirements of a community corrections order, potentially leading to breach of the order which can ultimately result in imprisonment.

The Supporting Justice project, by RMIT’s Centre for Innovative Justice (CIJ), aims to change how people with disability are treated and supported in the criminal justice system.

In 2019, CIJ partnered with Paper Giant to create, a website that provides practical resources for legal and court professionals and people with disability. These resources help connect people with disability in the criminal justice system with support, creating the opportunity for fairer outcomes.

To create these resources, the team brought together 12 representatives from the legal profession, courts, the judiciary, the disability support and advocacy sector, and 4 people with lived experience of disability and justice system involvement, to collectively generate ideas for change.  Many times, there were people sitting side by side who would typically be separated by a bar, a bench, and centuries of hierarchical protocol.

Paper Giant’s Kate Goodwin sat down with Stan Winford, the Associate Director of Research, Innovation & Reform at CIJ, to discuss the project.

Why was it important to you that the project team included people with lived experience of ABI and justice involvement?

First, because we want the justice system to be effective, and at the moment it’s very ineffective. In Victoria, 44% of people return to prison within two years, nationally the figure is up to 55%, and every year those numbers have been going up. In the last Victorian budget we spent 1.9 billion dollars on prisons.

If we want the justice system to work better, then something needs to change. And to us, the obvious missing element was the perspective of the people closest to the problem.

We can speculate about possible solutions, but they are the people who know what’s not working for them, who know what it’s like to be in prison and not understand what people are telling you to do, or not be able to remember when and where to go to get your medication, and all those sorts of things.

What was the other reason?

The other reason is that it can be transformative. The process itself actually improves the lives of the people involved. Thinking about how we undertook this project, it really changed me, it changed the people from the legal system who were involved, and it also helped give dignity to participants who had disability. It wasn’t just the outcome and the product that meant that we had a better response.

You said the project changed you – can you talk about that?

I always felt that perhaps it would be challenging, and hard, and yes, in some ways it was. But I think the practice also turned out to be even more important and valuable than I thought it would be.

That just comes from moving from theory into applied practice. A lot of the issues, and insights, and problems – you can’t think about them in the abstract. You actually have to test them and do them.

Lawyers think that we know all the answers because we know what the law is, but actually we don’t, and having different perspectives brought to bear on solving problems is definitely better than just having one lens to look at things through.

It can take a bit longer and involve a bit more work than you might anticipate. But you can get a lot more from it than you might think. And some of those things are not the things that you might expect.

What were you expecting?

I had a preconception about what a simple response to the problem would be, which would be a kind of services directory. And we do have that now, it’s one of several elements of the online resource. But what we found during the project is that people use information in funny ways, and in frustrating ways, and in human ways. You can design something that’s really good and accurate and useful, and people won’t necessarily read it because it’s not how they like to consume information.

So what I like is that, as well as the website, we have these physical documents, physical objects that a person can take with them, that even if it doesn’t have all the details on it, is a signal that something’s going on here that requires further investigation, and prompts that process. I think that sort of stuff is very clever, and what’s new and unexpected.

I like that, because if you told someone straight out the gate that we were going to set about designing a PDF on purpose, they’d be like, “It’s not 1995, no one does that anymore.”

But it’s a literal signal – if I turn up to, say, a duty lawyer, and I have this Preparing for Court client form, it’s a signal to that lawyer. Even if they’re not familiar with it, it says on the front, “This has been filled out by someone on behalf of someone who is cognitively impaired”, or whatever.

We’re not doing co-design because we want to try this cool new way of working with sticky notes and great visuals. We actually want to make sure that we’re achieving something for people – that there will be fewer people with ABI in prison.

To me this comes back to broader questions about the purpose and value of innovation – just because you do something differently, that doesn’t mean that it’s better. It’s still got to actually lead to an outcome that’s an improvement on what’s come before.

Has the approach taken in developing the resources carried through to any of your other work?

The experience of working with people with lived experience in designing responses has continued, to the extent where we’ve now got a large group of people who have been trained by Dorothy, a woman with lived experience of ABI and justice system involvement. We’re now able to provide this kind of advice more broadly, not just in relation to developing a resource.

That’s continued, and having huge effects on the system, as far as we can tell.

Who comes to you for that sort of advice?

We get approached by the police, or by people involved in court services who are looking at design questions, or people in corrections who are undertaking a review of the treatment of disability within corrections, and they say, “Can we have those guys come and talk to our people about what’s happening, and what we should be doing?”

Another spin-off has been successfully getting funding to partner with SARU, the Self Advocacy Resource Unit, to develop a group of peer advocates called Voices For Justice. There’s a training program, and they’ve now formed their own group, and they’re now having an influence on people in the system.

We’ve also started work on a couple other projects around housing design, and on providing alternative responses to do with resolving conflict for people with disability living in group homes, so that where it’s not criminal offending, they don’t end up being inappropriately responded to by police. Lots of really interesting things have been happening.

What would you say to someone who is interested in including people with disability in their design process, but is nervous about getting it wrong or being insensitive?

One of the really interesting things that we learned right from the beginning is that people with disability, like ABI, are generally okay about disclosing what their issues are, and what support needs they have, if they trust you and they know that this information is going to be used in ways which are beneficial to them, rather than be used against them.

I think people can be a little bit too frightened of offending, or saying the wrong thing, or appearing to be insensitive. If your heart’s in the right place, I don’t think you can go too far wrong.

But the advice I’d give is to be aware that people in the justice system have been treated very badly, and had experiences of their disability being used against them. They might be quite cagey about disclosure, but if they understand why their information is wanted, and how it could be helpful, then they’ll probably be okay. 

But again, here we are talking about them without them. You can ask them. That’s the key to it.

One of the very many profound things Dorothy said was, “When I went through the criminal justice system, no one asked me, ‘How did you get here?’ Nobody asked me, ‘What can I do to help you?’”

Just asking the question is a good start.

Read the full story of the project in our case study