Why So Many Women Who Leave Prison End Up Back There

Picture this: You’ve been away from home for a year but have been suddenly forced to return.

You’re utterly unprepared.  You’re going to have to organise accommodation, an immediate source of income, a job, all your medical needs, a driver’s license and Medicare card, as well as some form of transportation, within a week.  Oh, and you have approximately $300 to your name.

Tough, right?  Now imagine you have a poor rental history, no social supports to rely on, an abusive ex-partner who’s just caught wind of your return, children who are in state care, and a mental illness.

This is the situation that many female prisoners find themselves in when their sentence comes to an end.

My sister Anna, who is incarcerated at the Dame Phyllis Frost maximum security women’s prison, tells me that her fellow inmates anticipate their release dates with hope.

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“They all say the same thing: ‘I’m gonna get off the drugs and I’m gonna get my kids back.’  Some of the girls just want to get back on the gear, but most are really determined to get it right this time.”

Anna battled mental illness and addiction for years before her incarceration. (Image: Supplied)

Unfortunately, most female prisoners don’t get it right.  The number of women imprisoned in Australia is rising sharply, and much of that spike owes to climbing recidivism rates.  Sixty percent of women who leave prison will return sometime soon.

“I like seeing all the familiar faces when they come back in,” Anna said, “but it’s definitely sad for them… I think it’s tough to deal with the disappointment that comes with knowing you failed again.”

The truth is that for these women, hope is not enough.  Setting up a stable, healthy life is a momentous undertaking, and all the hope in the world is worthless if it’s not accompanied by the right supports.

What happens when a woman is released from prison?

When a woman is approaching her prison release date, she will be offered a range of non-compulsory services to help her prepare.  This might mean meeting with a Centrelink prison liaison officer to discuss payment options, corresponding with a housing service to be assessed for a public housing waiting list, or talking to a DHS outreach worker about custody arrangements.

According to Kerry Tucker, whose memoir The Prisoner details her own time spent behind the walls of DPFC, this mish-mash of optional supports isn’t nearly adequate to prepare women for the task ahead.

“The girls are spending their time in prison untangling airplane headphones for Qantas when they could be participating in mandatory life-skills programs.” Kerry asserted.

Once they have been released, women are entitled to about a week in subsidised accommodation.

Prisoners have access to some support services ahead of their release, but more than 40 percent still face homelessness upon completing their sentences. (Image: Getty)

“They don’t make any effort to place you somewhere near family or work,” Kerry explained.  “It could be anywhere in Melbourne.”

In her book, Kerry recounts being placed in a ‘dive’ apartment complex where she was the sole female occupant.

“I couldn’t believe the Prison Housing Service would turn me out with nowhere to go and then put me in a dangerous and stinky cesspit,” she said.

Frightened, she walked out after day one.  For most women, though, this isn’t an option.

It’s during this week that women are expected to somehow cobble together a stable life.  They might have a little bit of money left over from their prison job; there may be a relative or friend who is happy to help them out with a couch or a good word at an employer; but many women are simply on their own.

Where do you even start, if the only community you know is made up of people who use the drug that you’re desperately trying to stay away from?  How do you get your kids back from foster care, when you have no job and a big red mark across your resume reading ‘Ex-prisoner’?  How do you find yourself somewhere to live when you have a terrible credit history and no cash for bond?

Of course, there are a smattering of government and charity-based support services available to ex-prisoners, but few take into account the particular nexus of abuse and trauma which often underscores the offending of female prisoners.

Services which do exist are inaccessible to many ex-prisoners.  Long before my sister found herself locked in a holding cell for the murder of an innocent man, her monster mental illness had robbed her of the capacity to carry out even the most mundane of tasks.  There is no way she would have been able to book herself a consultation with an outreach worker or file an application for a housing waiting list.

Many of her fellow prisoners have landed in jail for similar reasons.  They are one of the many imprisoned women who report a history of mental illness. They have slid through the gaping rifts in the mental health system, and they need taking care of.

Behind the barbed wire, these women are given their medicine at regular intervals.  They are provided with healthy meals and told when to go to bed and punished when they screw up.  Then one day they’re turfed out the door and expected to grapple with an avalanche of mundane tasks all at once.

I see them waiting for the bus on the side of the road that winds its way to the prison gate, bewilderment on their faces and no one to pick them up.

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Is it any wonder that some women get off that bus with their few hundred dollars and choose to buy something that’s going to make them feel good, if only for a little while?  That they go back to the abusive ex-partner who will at least give them somewhere to sleep?

Forty percent of female prisoners wind up homeless upon release.  We are witnessing a cycle of incarceration and hopelessness which is only getting worse.

Dame Phyllis does a great job of taking care of its inmates.  It’s one of the best prisons in the world; Anna can attest to that.  There are drama classes and book clubs and cottage units where the girls get to cook their own food.  But it’s all for nothing if women are walking out at the end of their sentences and heading straight back to the conditions that led them to jail in the first place.

So what needs to change?

Kerry Tucker is devoting her life to answering this question.  And she has a few suggestions:

Tucker believes that a woman’s entire sentence should be devoted to teaching her the skills she will need to succeed on the outside.

“Each woman would have a mandatory program syllabus tailored specifically to them,” she said.  This might mean programs for well-being, self-esteem, nutritional cooking on a budget, finance or résumé writing.  Most important on the list?  Parenting programs.

As well as life-skills programs, Kerry reckons each woman should receive intensive personalised counselling to address the specific harm and abuse they’ve incurred over their lives.  This could include therapy for sexual abuse, family violence, addiction, or mental illness."

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More often than not their offending is directly related to their trauma.  They need support in this area if they are ever going to break the pattern of recidivism.”

When women are nearing the end of their sentences, Tucker believes they should be enrolled in re-integration programs designed to make the transition to public life smoother.  This could take the form of a separate, minimum security ‘half-way house’ from which women could take leave to work, and where children would be welcome to stay overnight with mum.  It’s here that women would be provided with one-on-one help to make practical arrangements for the outside.

(There is currently a minimum security prison called Tarrangowa where women can receive long visits from kids, but due to its distance from Melbourne, many women find it’s not a practical option to aide in re-integration.)

Upon release, ex-prisoners could be paired up with a peer-support mentor to assist them in setting up their lives.  Finally, Kerry said, “Women should be provided with suitable, stable and safe accommodation as close to their support systems as possible.”

Of course, there are always going to be people in the community who believe that criminals don’t deserve more support.

To them, Kerry asserts: "We go to prison as punishment, not for punishment.”  The punishment inherent in imprisonment is the removal of freedom; internal conditions are not intended to be a form of torture.

Perhaps most importantly, the cost of these extra supports would be far outweighed by the economic and social benefits rendered by keeping women safe and out of jail.  When women are stable and law-abiding they can contribute to society and care for their own children, removing pressure from taxpayers and overstretched state services.

Most women truly want to establish stable lives upon release.  But, as Anna points out, “So many of them have been in care as kids and abused, then wound up in shitty relationships as adults.  They don’t know how to set up healthy lives.”

If we’re serious about reducing the prison population and truly rehabilitating women, we’re going to have to give them a lot more help.