Mount Gambier Suicide Prevention Program

Unique suicide prevention program sees prisoners counsel each other

by James Cartwright

Suicide accounts for around a quarter of deaths in Australian prisons. Mount Gambier prison, operated by G4S Australia & New Zealand, is home to a program, unique to Australia, which helps reduce this statistic.The Prisoner Listener program, set up by Lifeline South-East Chief Executive Eve Barratt 23 years ago, sees her visit Mount Gambier, not to counsel the prisoners, but to train them.

Under her supervision, they learn how to listen and how to support their peers, particularly new arrivals, who are at a higher risk of self-harm.

Ms Barratt said the program has had its critics, but she believes everyone should be entitled to mental health care.

"We don’t seek to condone the crimes that any prisoner has committed. We don’t seek to minimise the gravity of what they have done,” she said.  
“But what we do believe is that the prison can be an opportunity for people to get in touch with the best part of themselves."

One prisoner, Joe*, said it is easier to speak openly with a fellow inmate than with an outsider.

"It does help people, because people are afraid to talk to officers because they get branded then as a ‘dobber', or a 'dog' [which] is the main word used for a dobber in jail."

Michelle Price, General Manager of Mount Gambier, G4S Australia & New Zealand said it also benefits the broader community.

"I think it’s our job, as people who work in custodial environments, to make sure that everybody’s equipped for when they’re released, in order that they don’t perpetrate another crime and have the skillset in order [so] that they can look after themselves as well." Prisoner peer support programs run in a number of jails across the country. But this one is unique, Ms Price said, because it has been consistently funded since its inception.

The results are clear to see. Despite the alarming countrywide statistic, there has been only one suicide at Mount Gambier since the program’s inception and the South Australian government are now assessing it for a wider rollout.

"I know it has saved lives,” commented Ms Barrett. “I know from feedback from the listeners themselves. I know from feedback from staff. And I know from my own personal encounters with prisoners, who've said, 'See that man? He saved my life'.”



*Prisoner’s name has been changed