Opinion article

Australia must break the cycle of disadvantage-incarceration-disadvantage

Disadvantaged Australians are overrepresented in the country's prisons. Facing stigma and barriers to re-entering society, a high number of ex-prionsers re-offend and are returned to prison. Deakin University's Professor Joe Graffam outlines the measures needed to break this cycle of disadvantage and incarceration. 

The current national two-year recidivism rate is 45 per cent. By five years, more than half of ex-prisoners are returned to prison. Clearly, it is a challenge for a person to avoid re-offending.

Several types of post-release support are important for ex-prisoners to avoid re-offending. Informally, a supportive, crime-free social network and family are of obvious importance and not always available. Formally, drug and alcohol treatment support, access to mental health, general health, and disability services are important.

Together with these various supports, stable, appropriate housing and employment are critical to successful reintegration post-release. Assistance in finding, procuring and keeping affordable housing is necessary.

Assistance into education and training is important for many people and not easily accessed without assistance.

Engagement with an employment services provider is critical to getting and keeping a job. Providers with expertise in working with ex-prisoners are better equipped to assist, and many ex-prisoners have little work history upon which to build. Ex-prisoners are often ill-equipped to navigate an environment within the open community due to lack of familiarity with the “rules of engagement”.

What is needed is an integrated system of support that brings together employment, housing, disability services, drug and alcohol treatment, mental and general health care, education, vocational training, and generic social services in a unified effort to support the lifestyle change that is necessary for successful reintegration.

The support needs of ex-prisoners are complex and inter-related, requiring an integrated system-based response. Without that, individual ex-prisoners are left to navigate unfamiliar ground.

Of course, ex-prisoners face numerous obstacles in gaining employment and housing. Probably the most obvious is the stigma associated with a criminal record. Employers and workers often are opposed to employing ex-prisoners. Parole conditions often preclude working in certain environments, and parole reporting conditions often interfere with work hours. Poor work history and lack of employment references complicate matters as well.

Low education, which is prevalent among ex-prisoners, inhibits employment in a large proportion of jobs. For some ex-prisoners, something as basic as prominent tattooing or poor dental health can also be obstacles. Obstacles in getting affordable, appropriate housing include stigma and discrimination, as well as lack of references, lack of funds for security deposits, and the shortage of subsidised housing. Many recently released ex-prisoners find themselves in crisis accommodation or backpacker/hostel environments where drugs and criminality are common and present risks of re-offending. 

It is well-documented that marginalised groups are over-represented within the prison population. For example, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are incarcerated at 10 times their percentage in the general population.

Two-thirds of the people in prison have a Year 10 education or less, so low education is also a prominent characteristic. Mental illness is extremely high among prisoners. One-third are receiving treatment at the time of arrest. We have to wonder how many are unwell and not receiving treatment at time of arrest or incarceration? Half have a history of psychiatric treatment. Rates that are higher than the general population in anxiety disorders and depression, personality disorders, drug and alcohol induced psychosis, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia are also recognised.

Of course, people with a disability comprise another marginalised group, and intellectual disability is five to 10 times more prevalent among prisoners than among the general population (variably reported as 10 per cent - 25+ per cent of prisoners/offenders).

Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) is also extremely high. US studies indicate TBI and Acquired Brain Injury (ABI) 50 per cent of non-violent and 75 per cent of death row prisoners. At least one study has found almost 90 per cent. A NSW study found 82 per cent of prisoners with a history of TBI. ABI requiring assistance in at least one of the “activities of daily living” is estimated to affect approximately 25 per cent of prisoners. It has been suggested that prisons are the asylums of the 21st century, places to house the truly disenfranchised.

Why are marginalised groups more likely to be imprisoned? The real question is, “What do these marginalised groups share that leads to each of them being over-represented in the prison population?” It is disadvantage.

In Victoria, 50 per cent of prisoners come from just six per cent of the state’s most disadvantaged postcodes; communities with high unemployment, low education, poverty, high health and welfare service use, etc. Children of prisoners are between three and six times more likely to become offenders-prisoners due to domestic and family violence, intergenerational crime, intergenerational substance abuse, etc.

Conviction and incarceration typically leave an indelible mark on an offender that adds further disadvantage to the personal and social disadvantages common to Australian prisoners. Criminal records are permanent and so are physical and psychological marks.

A disadvantage-incarceration-disadvantage cycle contributes to rising incarceration rates. That cycle is worrisome for our society, but profoundly tragic for individuals caught up in it. By treating communities as well as individuals, we can treat crime potential, reduce individual offending/re-offending and reduce incarceration numbers.

CEDA research: Read and download How unequal? Insights on inequality.

About the authors

Joe Graffam

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Professor Joe Graffam is currently Pro Vice-Chancellor, Research Training and Performance Enhancement at Deakin University and Professor and Chair in Psychology. Joe has worked in higher education for more than 30 years. His research has focused on development and application of an ecological model for the study of community integration of people with a disability. He has an international reputation and served for several years on the Ministerial Disability Industry Advisory Group. Since 2000, he has also studied reintegration of ex-prisoners, focussing on post-release employment, the role of peer mentors in assisting people leaving prison and the development of an ecological based “hub” concept to support disadvantaged communities. Joe convenes the annual Reintegration Puzzle Conference, Australia’s only prison reintegration focused conference. 

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