Dr Pooneh Torabian, a Canadian of Iranian heritage, is a lecturer in the Department of Tourism at the University of Otago. Her approach to research aims to expose injustices and inequalities, focusing on mobilities injustice, citizenship, migration, arts and leisure, and storytelling.

Dr Pooneh Torabian and Chris Ulutupu outside Rimutaka Prison before the Shot Bro performanceShe has worked with members of less privileged communities such as men and women with migrant backgrounds and incarcerated women.

In November 2020, Chris Ulutupu, Arts in Corrections Advisor, Arts Access Aotearoa invited Pooneh to attend Rob Mokaraka’s performance of his play, Shot Bro: Confessions of a depressed bullet to men in Rimutaka Prison in Upper Hutt.

She was profoundly moved by the play and the performance, and believes the arts have “tremendous” power to help prisoners’ rehabilitation as well as their re-integration back to the community on release.

In this Q and A interview, Pooneh discusses her research with the Canadian not-for-profit organisation Community Justice Initiatives and its Stride programme; the importance of the community engaging with people in the justice system; and how findings from her research could be applied to New Zealand.

1. What is Stride and what was your involvement with this programme?

The Stride programmme was developed by Community Justice Initiatives, a non-profit restorative justice organisation set up in Ontario, Canada in 1998. It runs Stride and other programmes with the Grand Valley Institution for Women, a nearby federal prison for women.

Stride, a leisure-based and women-centred crime prevention programme Stride is a leisure-based and women-centred crime prevention programme designed to connect community volunteers with women reintegrating from federal prison to provide supports that help them successfully re-enter the community.

Over time, the relationships that develop between the women in prison and community members become the foundation of what is called the Stride Circle of Support.

I was part of a group of researchers from the University of Waterloo in Ontario who conducted research with women involved in the Stride Circle. The research project explored women’s reintegration experiences and outcomes, including Stride Circle dynamics (trust, agreement, sharing); helpfulness of the Stride Circle and staff; and the importance of te Stride Circle in reducing stigma, and enhancing wellbeing, self-esteem and community connections.

Comments from the Circle prison members about the volunteers included:

  • “They definitely encouraged me to volunteer, and I was volunteering and they would validate that and make me feel good about myself for doing that and inquire about it, and it just made me feel like I was more part of my community."
  • "It opened my mind to trust people again and just to believe that people are sincere when they’re trying to help people and support people and stuff like that."
  • “I think they are the backbone to where I am today.” 
  • “They give me great advice, and they always push me, you know, ‘just keep your head up’, you know, ‘you can do it’, you know, ‘you’re strong’. And it helps because there aren’t many people here that lift us up like that. "

You can watch one woman describe the support she received from the Stride Circle volunteers during her reintegration into the community.

2. Why is it important that the community connects and engages with men and women in the justice system?

Findings from research with incarcerated men and women show they face a range of barriers in their path to community reintegration, including the stigma that’s attached to their “offender” identity. Low self-esteem, lack of training, mental illness, substance abuse issues, a lack of stable accommodation and a criminal record can all contribute to the challenges they face when they’re released.

Dr Pooneh Torabian gives a presentation about the Stride programme o members of the Arts in Corrections South Island Network in DunedinAssessing the legacy of the relationships that are built through the Stride Circle programme provides insights into their benefits and how they can be extended to other marginalised communities. 

Programmes such as Stride create a space for men and women in prison to come together with community volunteers and connect over shared interests and activities. Often, these activities include art, music, creative writing, dance and drama.

If men and women are at the core of these programmes, supported by volunteers, community members and through community partnerships, they can start building their networks prior to their release.

This can help tackle the barriers and issues they face in the transitioning process prison to the community.

Arts and leisure can also provide a space to tackle the barriers. Throughout his Shot Bro’ performance, Rob Mokoraka engaged the men and the korero afterwards provided an important opportunity for the men to reflect on the play, their own experiences, who they are, and where they want to go from here. 

3. Would you like to apply your research to New Zealand settings?

Arts programmes and projects offered in Corrections facilities by individuals and organisations from the community provide a strong basis for community support programmes. I’m keen to start working with Arts Access Aotearoa to examine how the arts programmes offered in New Zealand Corrections facilities can be an effective  medium to facilitate community reintegration.

I’m also interested in working with people like drama tutor Ruth Radcliffe and Rue-Jade Morgan, who facilitates a tikanga-based programme at Otago Corrections Facility.

Through my research, I’m convinced that the arts and leisure are useful tools to break down stereotypes and empower members of marginalised communities. Arts programmes and projects not only have the power to help with rehabilitation but also have great potential to connect prisoners with the arts community when they are released.

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