Finalist 2023

Co-Designing to Break the Incarceration Cycle

The Burnet Institute / Paper Giant / Paul Ramsey Foundation

‘The Forest’ is a place-based, holistic service designed to support recently released incarcerated people with histories of drug use.

'The Forest' is a place-based, holistic service designed to support and empower recently released incarcerated people with histories of drug use. Through innovative use of peer support, health and social services, opportunities for connection and avenues to employment, The Forest aims to break the damaging cycle of reincarceration.

A service based on the values of person-centeredness, connection, co-design and accessibility will empower people who have been in prison and who use drugs to be able to not just to set goals, but to gain the confidence to move towards them.

Design Brief:

The number of people in Australian prisons is growing: between 2011 and 2021 the prison population grew from 29,106 to 43,073. Reincarceration among people with illicit drug use histories is a major contributor to the social and economic costs of imprisonment in Australia.

Around 42% of people leaving prison will re-offend and be reimprisoned within six months of release. This rate is significantly higher for people with a history of substance dependence.

Despite an extensive existing body of research on the complex needs of people released from prison, access to post-release support is usually inadequate. Existing reintegration programs are typically overburdened, under-resourced, and limited in scope, allowing the current cycle of reincarceration to continue.

Recognising the need for more ambitious and holistic thinking, The Burnet Institute engaged Paper Giant to lead the co-design of an innovative and impactful service that supports recently released prisoners with histories of drug use.


This project was developed by:

Design Process

Through a co-design process involving a co-design advisory made of people with lived and professional experience of incarceration and drug use, we weaved together diverse perspectives to design a model that is both ambitious and engaged with the realities of the sector.

Over several months, the advisory was guided through a detailed process to iteratively design a post-release intervention.

We used creative co-design methods like visualising techniques, collaborative storyboarding and embodied play to explore the possibilities and make decisions. Beginning with the development of a shared vision, which was a service that would help them “gain stability, connection, the ability to dream and ultimately be an integrated part of their community”, the iterative process also led us to co-create the final strategic package which offers a comprehensive North Star for the project.

This strategic package describes the service delivery framework, with all the components created by the co-design group: the vision, the offering, the experience principles and the impact it would have on individuals, society and the economy.

The advisory chose the working name ‘The Forest’. The concept of a forest resonated with the co-design group because it represents an ecosystem where everything has a place and works in harmony, and where non-linear pathways are the only way to move.

All throughout, the advisors were given decision-making power and were guided in a psychologically safe way to make their own choices. Satellite group sessions were also held to allow participation around commitments and to avoid groupthink.

The Burnet Institute was engaged throughout the design process, so there is a strong sense of ownership to continue to drive this work and confidence that The Forest is a viable service.

This project builds on a considerable body of work undertaken by the Burnet Institute in the justice health space to date.

Design Excellence

At The Forest, people who might otherwise end up reincarcerated have somewhere safe to go, something meaningful to do, people to offer support, and the ability to feel healthy and secure.

Through extensive use of user journeys, we identified potential risks and pain points, as well as enabling factors to provide a seamless service. Given the often disjointed, incomplete nature of services provided to this cohort with complex needs, understanding and optimising user journeys through the service was considered high-priority.

In collaboration with experts and people with lived experience, we developed a service model that does more than bridge gaps: it creates an ecosystem. The service’s features include:

  • Peer mentoring program: The Forest includes a structured peer mentoring program that supports people leaving prison. Mentors use their lived experience and other skills to provide support, inspire hope and foster relationships.
  • Health and support services: Different professionals who embrace The Forest’s values come together as multi-disciplinary teams to address the long-term needs of a whole person. Services are accessible to allow people to access support when they need it through extended opening times and a drop-in approach.
  • Activities and social connection: The Forest builds connections with others through social spaces and activities that support engagement and community development.
  • Supported by a social enterprise: The Forest also provides pathways to employment, including via a self-run and integrated social enterprise that supports skills development, on-the-job training and funding of support services.

The Forest is developed with a flexible model and ongoing co-design approach that will allow it to adapt, grow and scale to different locations.

The Forest would be a Victorian first and a wider example of what’s possible when co-design is utilised to its full potential.

Design Innovation

The design process facilitated a level of participation and ownership rarely seen in projects involving this level of complexity. All decisions were made ‘in the room’, with participants — including several with lived experience — retaining full oversight of design decisions.

The diversity of experts involved allowed us to consider a raft of ethical, risk and operational considerations. Our process bridged a gap between ‘blue sky thinking’ and the realities of the justice health sector, resulting in a service model that challenges the status quo.

Incarcerated people who use drugs typically exit prison with a range of other support needs, which may include mental disorders, blood-borne viruses, disabilities, homelessness and low educational attainment. Siloed services often fail to address these complex needs in ethical and effective ways. The holistic nature of The Forest, and the ‘stages’ mapped through service user stories, mean that people can engage to achieve multiple goals in a non-linear way. This echoes what participants with lived experience told us throughout the design workshops: that flexibility and responsiveness are critical.

Notable features include:

  • The Forest is unique in Victoria in its focus on connection, community, and self-determination, while also providing access to other services under one roof.
  • The Forest provides after-hours access, with a low threshold for access.
  • There are no legal requirements to use the space or services as a condition of parole, meaning people can engage with the service on their own terms and in a way that feels safe for them.

The Burnet Institute is also leveraging knowledge of best practices to understand how digital technologies can be effectively and appropriately applied to achieve adaptive models for program delivery, without compromising on embeddedness within communities.

This innovative service model has the potential to significantly influence the design, health and justice sectors in Australia and beyond.

Design Impact

People who have managed to stop their AOD use in prison will often use again once released. They’re also at high risk of overdose – particularly in the first few weeks following release. Immediate access to a safe, holistic service that offers both formal and informal support, will reduce the risk of overdose and drug-related reoffending in the post-release period.

The cycle of reincarceration represents a form of intergenerational disadvantage that has ongoing impacts on equity. The Forest aims to intervene in this cycle by reducing rates of incarceration and providing people with appropriate support. This approach will benefit not only the service users but their families, communities and society more broadly.

Prevention is far more cost-effective than focusing narrowly on downstream, ‘pointy-end’ interventions. The Forest, with its focus on ending the cycle of incarceration rather than a stopgap approach, will also benefit the economy, which will see stronger and more sustainable health and social outcomes.

The Forest will also reduce the burden on other services. For example, after-hours de-escalation of potential crises by trained support staff will alleviate some of the burden on hospital emergency departments and mental health triage teams.

Structures around ongoing iteration will encourage participation from people within the community such as staff, peer mentors and community members. These processes will ensure The Forest stays meaningful and impactful to those who interact with it.

Our co-design process and the resulting outcomes have enabled the Burnet Institute to seek the resourcing to implement this project, with the confidence and framework to bring it to life.

Designed in Victoria for Victoria, this ambitious, holistic service model, with built-in structures for ongoing co-design, has the potential to serve as an example of the potential of co-design in developing solutions to complex, high-stakes health and justice challenges.

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