A cursory scan of just about any set of prisoner demographics quickly reveals a catalogue of social disadvantage. Our prison populations show disproportionately high numbers of people with health problems, including mental illness, addictions, intellectual disability, and acquired brain injury.
Other over-represented groups reflect lifelong social barriers, such as coming from a place of geographic disadvantage, or being part of a family living through inter-generational poverty. Homelessness can intersect with, and exacerbate, many of these risk factors.
Across Australia, one in four prisoners is homeless upon entering prison, and almost one in three expects to be homeless when they leave. Unsurprisingly, prison doesn’t fix the problems associated with homelessness – it increases them. This isn’t just an indictment on our correctional or housing systems, it represents a major risk factor for recidivism.
A study by Eileen Baldry and colleagues for the Australian Housing & Urban Research Institute 2003 showed that becoming homeless or transient after release was a significant predictor for returning to custody. Correspondingly, having stable housing is a major protective factor against recidivism.
The current housing affordability crisis in Australia is making these problems worse. Stable affordable housing is becoming increasingly difficult to find. Social housing options are extremely limited, with long waiting lists even for priority tenants.
As the private rental market has become increasingly competitive, low-income tenants face decreasing and worsening housing options. For people leaving prison, it’s even harder than this. Too often, ex‑prisoners – due to stigma and prejudice – are left with even less choice than others about their housing environment.
Support programs needed
Of course, given the range of personal and social disadvantages faced by many prisoners, finding housing is only the first step forward. Support programs for exiting prisoners only end up working with a fraction of those who need help reintegrating back into the community. Even when they do, the level of support available is often too limited. Every time we neglect to offer someone the support needed, we increase that person’s chances of returning to prison.
The high volume of people in Victorian prisons who have been in prison before shows that our current efforts to rehabilitate and reintegrate offenders back into the community are failing. These failures are not only costly to the Victorian Government and taxpayers, but they are also ineffective in reducing crime.
After serving their time, people leaving prison should have a genuine chance at a fresh start. In the lead-up to the state budget, The Salvation Army has called on the Victorian Government to invest in programs to reduce recidivism. A pilot package includes a housing subsidy, private rental access workers, and intensive case-management support for those with complex needs.
By helping to stabilise ex-prisoners’ housing and giving them the support they need after release, we are creating a stable environment and pathways towards reintegration. It’s fair, it’s better for the community and it’s more economically sustainable than building prisons.
Given the billions of dollars we spend locking people up, without creating effective deterrents to crime, why wouldn’t we try investing a fraction of that cost in improving ways to restore people to their communities?