Being deprived of one's liberty is a severe form of punishment. It has long been recognised that, aside from community safety or punishment, one of the major roles of prisons is to provide prisoners with opportunities for rehabilitation. The concept of rehabilitation is that the time spent in prison is an opportunity to provide prisoners with programs and activities to develop skills and resources that will assist them to live in society successfully upon release, without committing further breaches of the criminal law. However, successful rehabilitation also requires post-release support which women prisoners largely do not have access to upon their release.
Making Rehabilitation of Women Prisoners Effective
Genuine rehabilitation simply cannot be undertaken solely within the prison environment and must be undertaken at the post-release phase. Factors such as employment, accommodation, drug abuse, mental health, sexual assualt and trauma are deeply implicated in offending for women, and need to be addressed in rehabilitation programs. Currently in Australia, the extent to which these factors can be meaningfully addressed prior to release continue to be very limited and ineffective. The reduced availability of in-custody rehabilitation programs compared with men is discriminatory and has a negative effect on women’s rehabilitative prospects. Case management and programs must become available to women at the time of their incarceration, not just after their sentence. Almost 30% of women in custody throughout Australia are on remand with no access to the rehabilitative programs that could improve their prospects for reintegration on release. Clients of the organisation WIPAN and also other post-release services for women prisoners have been made aware of women in prison who have had no opportunity to participate in programs from the date of receiving their sentence to their earliest date of release. A woman’s sentence includes the time spent on remand and consequently they can leave prison with no further custodial time to serve or for a short time after sentencing, making her ineligible for in-custody rehabilitation programs at all. This does nothing to assist women prisoners with the process of rehabilitating, one of the stated aims of all corrective services. The whole of the custodial period is a time that should be used by Corrective Services to increase the likelihood and ability for women prisoners upon release to successfully reintegrate.
There are proven links between homelessness, offending and re-offending. Suitable, supported and stable housing is associated with staying out of prison. There is currently little in the way of systematic arrangements linking case-managed supported housing to women preparing to leave prison. This is particularly the case for those with complex needs. Finding safe, stable and affordable housing is one of the major challenges faced by prisoners on release. Unstable housing or homelessness along with alcohol or other drugs issues significantly increases the risk of reoffending. As such, stable housing plays a critical role in assisting ex-prisoners to make a successful transition from prison to the community. Women exiting prison face greater challenges in accessing housing and experience higher levels of homelessness, debt, depression, isolation and social exclusion than that of men leaving prison, who are more likely to have family support than women. There is a dearth of appropriate post-release support services for women. Professor Eileen Baldry found that homelessness was a predictor of return to prison for people recently released from prison in NSW and VIC and that Aboriginal women were significantly more likely to be homeless and return to prison quickly than that of other women or men. This study also found that this group of women was more likely to have been homeless prior to imprisonment and experiencing a vicious cycle post-release, of homelessness, worsening drug use, return to violent partners, poorer mental health and trauma associated with such violence and being unable to gain access to their children. The lack of feasible accommodation on release has resulted in a significant number of women exiting prison to live on the streets, exposing them to conditions that perpetuate drug and alcohol relapses, and leave them vulnerable to sexual and physical violence. To avoid homelessness women may be driven to seek accommodation in unsafe environments, where domestic violence, substance abuse and criminal activity may be the norm.
Transition from Prison to Liberty
The issues touched upon here are obviously not the only issues impacting women prisoners upon their release or as part of their overall rehabilitaion. A wide range of other factors could also be cited, such as alienation, unemployment, low self-esteem, access to children and their families. The manner in which these issues might be effectively addressed is not simple. No single agency can realistically be expected to assume responsibility for meeting such a diverse set of needs. Partnerships between government and non-government sectors would provide a more holistic and wrap around service for women pre-release and post-release, as per the Bangkok Rule # 46. The non-government sector in Australia has long been active in attempting to cater to the special needs of women pre-release and post-release prison. This includes organisations such as Flat Out and VACRO in VIC; Sisters Inside, the Catholic Prison Ministry and Second Chance in QLD; Taryn House in South Australia; OutCare in Western Australia and Women in Prison Advocacy Network, Guthrie House and Community Restorative Centre (CRC) in NSW; all aiming to support women prisoners. While these initiatives are commendable, necessary and important, they receive inadequate funding, depend on volunteer labour and are at constant threat of reduced funding budgets and/or closure. The government funded Probation, Parole and Community Supervision services in each State and Territory are also expected to assist with respect to post-release programs and re-integrating newly released women prisoners back into the community, similar to Bangkok Rule # 45. Community Corrections provide some non-custodial programs, with post custodial orders including parole, release on licence, pre-release orders and some forms of home detention.