'Easier Being In Jail': The Homelessness Problem For Prison Inmates

Michael has been in and out of prison a dozen times. He often felt he was better off just staying on the inside.

"We need more help for people getting out of prison, because now there's nothing. They promise you the world, then you're out the front gate and it's like 'Michael who?'," he told ten daily.

"Sometimes I’ve been sitting in a cell in the police station and thinking 'I'm glad I'm here'."

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Michael, from Melbourne, usually found himself homeless or couch surfing soon after leaving prison.

Prisoners are often released with a small amount of money, usually a percentage of the cash they earned while working in prison.

"One time I came out with $800. With that, I've got to find accommodation, buy new clothes, food. Show me you can do that with $800," he said.

"Once I was let out on Monday, and then I knocked over a supermarket on the weekend. They haven't got anything set up to help."

Michael's case is an illustration of a ballooning problem in Victoria, where the number of prisoners leaving jail and becoming homeless nearly tripled between 2011-12 and 2016-17.

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare figures on homelessness showed around 800 such cases in the 2011 year, exploding to almost 2500 -- an increase of 188 percent in just five years.

Prison can often lead to homelessness, experts say (Getty Images)

"It's not something everybody thinks about it, but it’s often unexpected for someone to go into prison. It's not planned, so it doesn't give people time to get their affairs in order," Jenny Smith, the CEO of Victoria's Council to Homeless Persons (CHP), told ten daily.

"In prison, your relationships can break down, or you could already be homeless before going into prison. To release someone from prison into homelessness is hard. They try to make sure someone has somewhere to go after prison, but it's hard to plan."

"There are some government funded resources working with prisoners early on, but it's limited."

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In a submission ahead of the Victorian budget, CHP said the state needed to invest in subsidised housing to help prisoners transition back into outside life.

"A pool of dedicated housing is required to ensure that the justice and health outcomes that the Victorian Government invests in so heavily at the crisis end are not undercut upon release," the CHP submission read.

"Such housing should be a widespread feature of post-release and post-discharge care."

Smith said many people do not have the funds to pay rent or mortgage payments while in prison, and therefore lose their previous accommodation.

Finding a new rental or even a job after leaving prison as an ex-prisoner can be a difficult task, leading many to find themselves homeless, and at risk of reoffending.

READ MORE: Jailbreak: How Australia's Most Brazen Crims Find A Way Out

"The help they give is like having your arms tied behind your back. There's no subsidised housing for ex-inmates. If we have people released from prison who are vulnerable, when times get tough they are likely to re-offend," Smith said.

Experts have called for more housing help for ex-prisoners (Getty Images)

Michael was more blunt.

"Sometimes its easier being in jail than out of jail. I had a roof over my head, I knew where my meals are coming, I had a job in the kitchen. If you're on a drug habit, on the verge of killing yourself or someone else, you're better off in jail than outside," he said.

Michael said his accommodation options outside of prison were limited, finding himself in a rundown rooming house with "people two feet from my door selling ice."

As a recovering drug user, it wasn't the ideal environment. Problems with parole officers, which had him fearing that even the tiniest breach of his conditions might see him back in jail, didn't help.

"I once asked them to send me back to jail, because I had such problems with the parole worker," he said.

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Michael has been out of prison for a while now, and kicked a decades-long drug habit, thanks to linking with a church group which has helped him ease back into life in the real world.

READ MORE: What It's Like To Visit A Loved One In Prison

"The government need to do things to help people stay out, and break this cycle of going in and out. They've got to do more to help prisoners when they get out," he said.

Smith said it made sense even on economic terms, to keep people out of jail rather than shuttling people back and forth.

"We spend a lot on expensive prisons, it’s a huge cost, so why do we discharge people without any support to stay out? The most likely thing is they’ll reoffend, and go back in," she said.

Featured Image: Getty 

Contact the author jbutler@networkten.com.au