by Dr Michele Jarldorn, University of South Australia and Seeds of Affinity, Dr Bec Neill, University of South Australia and Seeds of Affinity, Linda Fisk, Seeds of Affinity
This article was originally published in Parity magazine. Learn more about Parity magazine including how to access full editions.
Prison and housing insecurity
When your home has been a prison, leaving marks an abrupt and profound change: one that generates a complex set of emotions and challenges, such as finding shelter, meeting post‑release obligations, reconnecting with family and combatting isolation.
Whilst prison might be conceived by many in the community as easy access to ‘three hots and a cot’, for criminalised women, housing insecurity is both a catalyst for their entanglement with the criminal justice system and a structure that constrains their agency to remain free citizens beyond completion of custodial sentences.
Homelessness permeates the experience of criminalised women. Over a third of women are assessed as homeless in the year preceding their entry into prison. Housing insecurity is often an outcome of prior and present experiences of violence, with these effects exacerbated by recent changes to social welfare policy, support payments, and domestic violence policies and legislation.
Perversely, these changes increased the numbers of criminalised women, especially Aboriginal women, and the seriousness of the crimes with which they are charged. They increasingly render women homeless and with a criminal record. Once criminalised, homelessness further extends women’s entanglement with the criminal justice system.
The costs of prison
It costs around $111,000 per annum to imprison one adult in Australia. The additional social costs to families and communities are hard to estimate, but might be scoped by considering at least 85 per cent of criminalised women have experienced violence, trauma, and victimisation across their lives.
When women are released from prison, it is often into housing precarity. Affordable accommodation options are rare, with public housing waiting lists being years rather than months long. Minimal post‑release housing options for women means many who are eligible for early release cannot access it for lack of a suitable address.
Others choose not to pursue early release options because previous release experiences have been fraught, poorly coordinated and often accompanied by further traumatising experiences, which impact their mental health and amplify the risks of suicide and self‑harm.
Women released from prison usually return to the same social issues they experienced prior to incarceration. Successfully remaining in the community post‑release is unlikely if they cannot access resources such as housing and health‑based models of addiction and mental health treatment.
In South Australia, it is common for homeless women to be released from prison on a Friday after 5pm—well beyond close of business for the public and community organisations that might otherwise provide them with immediate and ongoing post‑release support.
This practice unwisely presumes 24/7 capacity of poorly resourced families and community organisations, and effectively guarantees women’s high rates of return to prison.
Seeds of Affinity
Seeds of Affinity (Seeds) is an award winning, grassroots, peer‑led community group that has supported criminalised women in South Australia since 2006. Co‑founded by a woman with lived experience of prison and her social worker, Seeds is managed by an all-women board comprised of women with lived prison‑experience, social workers, human service workers, educators and activists.
Seeds structures their work using a community development model. Alongside bi‑weekly community workshops based around a shared meal, Seeds offers a broad range of support options tailored to each woman’s needs and circumstances in a safe, supportive and non‑judgemental environment.
Often, support entails working with a woman to access or keep their housing. Among criminalised women in South Australia, Seeds is known as a trusted and authentic service provider. Women choose to, rather than being mandated to, engage with Seeds; we believe this is because we work outside of the criminal justice system.
We do things differently, with love, care and compassion. We adopt an inclusive approach where we ‘leave no woman behind’. Our advocacy work is mindful of the wicked problems created by prison reform; instead, we dream of a future without prisons. This is a position gaining traction in social work research; one we ask social workers consider to guide their practice.
What follows is a case study (names are pseudonyms) outlining the complexities of accessing and retaining post‑release housing.
Mary is in her early thirties. She has experienced mental health challenges for as long as she can remember, stemming from traumatising childhood experiences. Mary was first released from the Adelaide Women’s Prison five years ago and placed at a Bail Hostel. This was Mary’s first experience of release in South Australia, having had her first contact with the criminal justice system interstate.
Bail hostels are designed to be a ‘pit stop’ for people leaving prison; the recommended maximum stay is 10 days, with the presumption bail hostel staff support returning citizens to source housing.
Mary did not receive this support and with minimal local knowledge felt isolated and immobilised. Mary’s parole officer suggested she attend Seeds. Welcomed by women who had survived similar experiences, Mary began to shift from surviving to flourishing. The Seeds Community Coordinator worked closely with Mary, eventually finding housing through the private rental market.
Within a couple of months, Mary was helping cook lunches at Seeds, getting exercise, tending her garden and turned the roof over her head into a home. Here she found sanctuary from the world and could escape the stigma of being a criminalised woman, something she felt keenly in her post-release life.
Six months after moving into her rental, Mary attended court, where they suspended her sentence. Her electronic monitoring bracelet was immediately cut off, but no extra social supports were put in place.
With this intense surveillance removed, Mary’s addiction re-emerged. Within weeks, Mary was returned to prison. Knowing the importance of keeping housing, Seeds managed the property, paying the rent from Mary’s account until the funds expended. Then, with Mary’s permission, another Seeds member ‘Jane’, on parole and unable to access emergency housing to escape a violent partner, was placed in Mary’s house.
Jane maintained the property, paying rent for another five months, until she returned a ‘dirty urine’ test and was returned to prison for 30 days. At this point, the hard‑fought housing was lost. Soon after, Mary was released from prison again.
Without a house, her only option for release was with a male acquaintance who had significant alcohol problems and was sexually violent. Mary returned to prison soon after. The next time Mary was released it was after 5pm on a Friday night; she was back in prison within a week.
More than just a roof
While this case study demonstrates the importance of housing for formerly incarcerated women, it also shows the need for more than just a roof over one’s head. Homelessness does not occur in isolation, it is interconnected with other social problems such as poverty, addiction, poor mental and physical health, and experiences of domestic and sexual violence.
Social workers working in homelessness services must draw upon their understanding of structural violence and enact their knowledge of trauma‑informed practice when working with women like Mary. This means recognising that poor mental health and addiction rarely disappear, and remain buried under the surface, ready to reappear once surveillance and monitoring cease.
However, no amount of understanding can compensate for the lack of suitable housing for returning citizens. Expecting a newly released citizen to organise housing within 10 days of release is arbitrary and unfair. While some women have the skills, connections and resources to find housing, this rush to move women on while they are decompressing after traumatic experiences of the prison environment is short sighted, setting many women up to fail.
For Seeds, a community organisation reliant upon fundraising and volunteer labour of experienced peer‑workers, our frustration rests with the lack of policy, funding and action on solutions to housing women as they attempt to leave the criminal justice system. Twenty years of research and practice provides ample evidence that the most significant challenges to staying out of prison are the lack of housing, limited material resources and access to meaningful social support.
Moving from surviving to thriving
While the cost of imprisonment is significant, we are not suggesting keeping women out of prison is about saving money, instead we propose the money is better spent on enhancing and supporting communities to flourish and thrive.
While the formerly incarcerated women we support acknowledge their privilege in accessing post‑release housing, our experience shows a house is not enough. Extensive social, emotional and material support along with community connections are necessary to move from surviving to thriving in post‑release life.
Our dream is that social policy and funding shift from offering up minimal reforms—those that ‘tinker around the edges’ and maintain the status quo, to the understanding that prisons are ‘antiquated, cruel and ultimately ineffective’ and that community led, managed and driven responses steeped with love, care, and compassion prevail.
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