PCO Gary Smallridge communicating with a youth prisonerStaff at Corrections’ Youth Units have been recognised for their work raising awareness and advocating for young prisoners with speech, language and communication challenges.

The Youth Units are at Christchurch Men’s Prison and Hawkes Bay Regional Prison.

The New Zealand Speech-Language Therapists’ Association (NZSTA) presented the Communication Access Award as part of its ‘Giving Voice’ campaign, which raises awareness, and advocates for people who have speech, language and communication needs.

“Many of the young men we work with have issues with communication and with expressing their thoughts and ideas,” says Gary Smallridge, Principal Corrections Officer at Christchurch Men’s Prison.

“Better understanding the challenges these young men face and helping them develop communication skills can make a big difference to their ability to live in a community and ultimately to stay away from offending.”

Research suggests as many as 60 percent of young people in youth justice settings experience significant speech, language and communication difficulties which can have a huge impact on participation in activities, particularly as many prison programmes rely on being able to talk and understand language well.

“Communication can be challenging and difficulties with oral language are common in youth justice settings - from understanding complex vocabulary to being able to express feelings and use language to solve problems,” says Gary.

“When young people can’t express themselves clearly using verbal communication or don’t have the skills to pick up these communication cues from others, it often leads to miscommunication, disconnection or even a violent physical response.”

“The young men we get in our prisons have often never developed these skills, have fallen out of education and often have chaotic lives. This training has given us some tools to better understand where they are coming from, to communicate more effectively with the youth in our care and help them develop the tools to communicate in a more effective and socially acceptable way.”

Corrections engaged speech language therapists from Talking Trouble Aotearoa NZ to develop specialised workshops for staff.

Through the training, Youth Unit staff examined ways they could adapt their processes to make it easier for young people to contribute their views and build their communication skills. In particular, the training considered how new focus groups might be set up that would allow all the young people to express their opinions about life in the units.

The workshops helped staff identify who might need particular help with speech, language and communication and worked with the speech language therapists to develop resources and strategies to make unit interactions easier for everyone.

"Making sure everyone could have a say and participate in all the interactions that go on in Youth Units in prisons was an important priority for Youth Unit staff,” says NZSTA Speech Language Therapist Sally Kedge from Talking Trouble.

“The speech language therapists at Talking Trouble Aotearoa NZ nominated the Youth Unit staff for this award and we are really pleased that they have received the recognition of a Communication Accessible Award from the New Zealand Speech-language Therapists’ Association.”

According to NZSTA, about 10 percent of people in the general population have a communication impairment that can affect speech, reading, writing and understanding. NZSTA's Giving Voice Aotearoa campaign developed the Communication Access Awards to acknowledge people and organisations who are going the extra mile to ensure communication success for everyone.