Each year in NSW about 19,000 people leave prison and, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, more than half expect to be homeless.

“Having somewhere supportive to go is a huge barrier,” says Claude Robinson, Manager of post-release accommodation program Rainbow Lodge. “Many people leaving prison will move into temporary accommodation or go back into areas where it will be difficult for them to successfully transition to the next stage of their life.”

The Rainbow Lodge Program, in Sydney’s inner west, provides three months of transitional post-release accommodation, which includes intensive case management, access to an on-site psychologist and groups to further support clients with trauma, living skills, mental illness, institutionalisation and addiction related issues.

“Our clients are assessed at high risk for recidivism, with complex and challenging needs. We offer intensive supported accommodation to men upon exit from incarceration, some of whom would otherwise be homeless,” says Claude.

Supported post-release housing programs, such as the one provided by Rainbow Lodge, give people leaving prison a much better chance of remaining out of the justice system.

“The majority of people leaving prison are not supported,” says Claude. “When people have supervision, they do better.”  

More than half the people leaving prison in NSW will return within two years, but according to Community Restorative Centre, another post-release housing program, long-term reintegration programs can reduce recidivism by more than 70%.  

“We know what works, but we just aren’t funded to do it,” says Claude.

Of all the people who leave prison each year, Rainbow Lodge can provide accommodation for only 32 men.

Nearly all of Rainbow Lodge’s clients have substance misuse as well as mental health issues. Nearly half the clients have been in foster care and over 80% have been exposed to domestic violence. Claude says that all Rainbow Lodge’s clients have unresolved trauma.

“We’re criminalising trauma,” says Claude, “we’ve let these men down.”

Claude, who himself was a client of Rainbow Lodge after a term of incarceration 17 years ago, says prison doesn’t work.

“This idea that we send people to be rehabilitated is delusional. People are traumatised in prison, not rehabilitated.”

In 2022 the NSW District Court introduced the Walama List for First Nations offenders, which uses a community-led, holistic approach to find alternatives to incarceration, with an emphasis on cultural support and direction, and long-term rehabilitation for the participants.

The Rainbow Lodge Program made the decision to allocate two beds specifically to support men from the Walama List and, earlier this year, Paul Ramsay Foundation provided a grant to Rainbow Lodge to help fund the support services for their Walama List clients.

The men have access to cultural programs and activities aimed at re-connecting them to their culture to support healing and address inter-generational trauma and loss of identity, as a pathway to address their addiction and offending behaviours.

“We have partnered with First Nations owned and operated organisations including Wiimpatja Consulting to deliver their innovative Stronger Aboriginal Men’s program, an intensive 6-day men’s change program built on cultural principles,” says Claude. Gamarada Universal Indigenous Resources also supports Rainbow Lodge with cultural training and deliver their successful Healing Circle program each week to the men.

“The program has allowed me to make mistakes, without being looked down upon. It started to connect me back to my culture and family, I’ve been gone too long,“ says Maika, the first graduate of Rainbow Lodge’s Walama program.

Claude says the program is still evolving to best serve the needs of the men and their families, but he hopes at the end of the Walama trial, that Rainbow Lodge’s approach becomes a model for how to work with First Nations people, and support alternatives to incarceration.

“Our goal is that this becomes the way we do things.”