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A new way out: More Cultural Rehabs Less Jail program making an impact

After 15 years in prison, proud Wiradjuri man Jeff Amatto knows too well the failure of the correctional system in Australia to rehabilitate men who have fallen on tough times.

The only way Jeff could beat his entrenched pattern of alcohol and substance abuse, and the related misdemeanours required to support his habit, was to connect to culture.

At 35 and illiterate, he was introduced to a cultural-based rehabilitation program on the NSW central coast. The experience turned his life around.

 “You must know who you are as an Indigenous person to start your healing process,” says Jeff.

“If we want to close the gap for Indigenous people, we need more cultural rehabs and less jails. We can’t get well in a jail cell.”

Jeff, who was raised in Dubbo, NSW, had a childhood filled with trauma and was expelled from school at the age of 14. His role models were older men who had been in and out of prison, who used heavier drugs and gave Jeff an education in housebreaking as a way of supporting his growing heroin addiction. At 16, he was sent to a Sydney prison.

 “The system didn’t work for me. I walked out of the system the same way as I walked in. With addiction problems, I couldn’t get work, I was homeless.”

Following his experience at the South Coast cultural rehab, Jeff became convinced it was the only way to help Indigenous men and keep them out of jail.

He established the Wellington Yindamarra Healing Men’s Group and its More Cultural Rehabs Less Jail program that supports community men on parole on their road to recovery and wellbeing, via the Wellington Aboriginal Corporation Health Service (WACHS) in New South Wales.

The program uses yarning circles in the current parole process and connects men and their families to support services. Providing a culturally safe space has been an antidote to men experiencing trust issues within the parole system, where they are dealing with sensitive issues and stigmas with mental health in the correctional facility.

Jeff Amatto was given a community award on Australia Day 2023 for his work and leadership as co-founder of drug and alcohol addiction charity Brothers 4 Recovery. The Wellington community raised the Australian and Aboriginal flags in unison on January 25 in a twilight session.

"They can’t talk about their problems at parole, the fear of being breached, they can’t talk to non-Indigenous facilitators who use statistics and show videos. They can’t connect."

Around 30 men and young males have taken part in the More Cultural Rehabs Less Jail program with the following results in the first six months, according to the Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander Male Health E-bulletin report:

  • Men’s yarning circles are now included in current parole processes
  • 7 men on parole attend the Yindamarra men’s group
  • 2 men successful in full time employment
  • 3 men are suspended from weekly reporting parole measures allowing them to engage in the program full time
  • 7 men connected to culture, traditional song and dance
  • 7 men completed a traffic control course
  • all men attending the group are engaging in community and participants bring other men to start their own journey to recovery.

For the past four years, Jeff has been travelling Australia advocating for reforms in the prison system, promoting cultural rehabilitation, delivering youth programs and giving presentations in detention centres. One of these programs is called Brothers 4 Recovery, which tours regional areas of New South Wales and engages with schools, community groups, and small groups of ‘at risk’ young people, also providing one-on-one mentoring.

He has undertaken courses, won awards, tapped into counselling services and shown others how to do the same, all of which came as part of his initial cultural rehabilitation experience.

“There’s jails within 200ks of every community in Australia,” he points out. “But if you want to help, you have to travel for days in some places, or wait 10-12 weeks.”

“We commit a crime, we can be in jail that night, but if we need help …the system doesn’t work.”

The most powerful thing his group provides is a safe space to talk, a yarning circle, to connect with culture and give men tools to thrive in the community. Tools to speak up about mental health, tools about living, tools about hygiene, nothing is off the table.

“All the system gave me was not to speak about my problems and how to make contact to use drugs in an unhealthy way. I’ve seen men walk into the system and walk out a drug addict.”

Further information

Listen to an interview with Jeff Amatto and Mawunyo Gbogbo on the ABC’s Overnights program.

 Connect with Jeff on Facebook


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