With bars, without walls

By Chloe Potvin

This article is a part of our August focus on Homelessness in Australia – you can access more content from this issue here.

By Chloe Potvin

Nationally, there were 29,383 prisoners in Australia as of the last count. While women only account for seven per cent of the prisoner population, this percentage is quickly rising.

In the last decade, the national female imprisonment rate has risen 48 per cent, with an eight per cent increase from 2011-2012 alone. This exponential rate of growth is 20 times the growth rate for men.

But what is most alarming is that this spike has been propelled by a 20 per cent increase in the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women behind bars. This is compared to a three per cent rise in the non-Indigenous female prisoner population.

Indigenous women are the most over-represented, and constitute the fastest growing group, in Australian prisons.

Ex-prisoners, housing and re-incarceration

A rise in the Indigenous female imprisonment rate means a concomitant rise in their rate of release into the community post-prison. But attaining post-release accommodation has become a significant issue for many of these women. And while there may be crisis housing and services available, ongoing supported housing is much harder to come by.

Indigenous women prisoners are the least likely of all prisoner groups to access housing and support services upon their release.

The ability to attain suitable accommodation is widely identified as a major barrier to a prisoner’s successful parole application. As release on parole requires prisoners to adhere to certain conditions, it is vital that appropriate accommodation arrangements are organised pre-release. Yet this is often difficult. Many prisoners face losing public housing properties while in prison, being cut off from waiting lists, or long waits on lists.

Despite how important accommodation is to a prisoner’s parole, there are limited means to find appropriate accommodation options. A 2012 report by the Queensland Government into the mental health of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in custody found that many inmates are not granted parole, as suitable housing cannot be found for them. Instead they remain in custody.

Stable, secure and suitable housing is connected to reducing rates of recidivism. But Indigenous women prisoners are the least likely of all prisoner groups to access housing and support services upon their release. Many Indigenous ex-prisoners and parolees, particularly women with dependent children, are inclined to return to their family homes or previous dwellings, as this is the only available option.

As mentioned above, parolees must meet a number of stipulated conditions upon their release or risk re-incarceration. However, as the 2012 Queensland Government report identified, many parolees breach their parole for “associating with known criminals” – family members, partners or friends may have criminal histories.

Parolees and ex-prisoners living in unstable housing circumstances, such transient accommodation or sleeping on a friend’s couch, have a higher chance of returning to prison. A 2006 NSW and Victorian-based study found that 59 per cent of parolees who moved more than twice in the nine-month period after they were released were re-incarcerated. Those who did not move or moved only once had a 22 per cent chance of returning to prison.

The research also found that there is a relationship between primary homelessness and re-incarceration – 60 per cent of ex-prisoners living without proper shelter were returned to prison.

There is significant need for a transitional and post-release approach informed by Indigenous women and support workers themselves.

Breaking the prison cycle: housing and services mapping 

Studies also pinpoint the inability to find housing post-release and susceptibility to homelessness with a variety of other issues including the likelihood of reoffending, drug overdose, mental health disorders, sexual and domestic violence and intergenerational poverty.

Yet despite this conclusive research government and non-government post-release agencies are not doing enough to meet the specific housing needs of ex-prisoners as they transition back into the community.

Adding to this problem are gaps in the style of services, such as a lack of accommodation support for those with mental health disorders, or housing in a variety of geographic locations, as well as shortfalls in the availability of services that address the explicit needs of Indigenous women.

But there is a simple reason for this.

There is an enduring assumption that Indigenous women will use housing and social support services designed for women in general. There is little understanding that although Indigenous women share some aspects of gender disadvantage with non-Indigenous women, including but not limited to economic dependence on men and high levels of domestic violence, they also have been subjected to systemic racism and entrenched socio-economic inequalities.

In fact, Aboriginal women and their experiences of intersectional discrimination have been described in the Social Justice Report 2004 as largely invisible to policy makers in the criminal justice context. Little attention is given to their specific needs and circumstances during community transition and social re-integration.

Consequently, culturally relevant services are crucial to addressing ex-prisoner homelessness. There is significant need for a transitional and post-release approach informed by Indigenous women and support workers themselves.

It is futile to address the post-release housing needs of Indigenous female prisoners without taking their perspectives into account. To be effective, programs focused on these women must be grounded in their own values, beliefs and realities and subsequently must be developed and run in partnership with Indigenous women.

Chloe Potvin is a Sydney-based multimedia journalist interested in global politics, human rights and activism.