June 23 2017

Why exiting prison is so hard

Joe Graffam MAPS
By Psychologist and Pro Vice Chancellor at Deakin University

Incarceration has a psychological toll that continues long after a prisoner is freed

What is the psychological impact of being in prison?

By their nature, prisons are highly controlled environments, with a strict routine. Despite the boredom inherent in the setting, it is common for former prisoners to have become ‘dependent’ on strict routines and rules. Depending on the length of their sentence, prisoners can experience a loss of life skills and knowledge of contemporary life. This in turn leads to even greater dependency and feelings of isolation on release. Heightened anxiety is common among prisoners, including ‘gate fever’ or the apprehensiveness associated with exiting into an unknown future with few resources.

Do offenders receive psychological help in prison?

In Australia and most other developed countries, there is some psychological support available in prison. Clinical psychologists are on staff but their work is mainly focussed on specific offending behaviour such as sexual offending, anger management and drug use.

Medications for diagnosed mental illnesses are provided and the little acute counselling that occurs is usually provided by consultant psychiatrists who come in periodically (This varies from prison to prison). When prisoners are released, it is often with a packet of medications and best wishes, not with a referral to an identified mental health worker.

What do ex-prisoners experience psychologically?

Living in an environment of fear and violence can lead to the development of a hyper-vigilant state among ex-prisoners, with elevated levels of anxiety. Many prisoners experience a loss of family and support network while in prison, so on release social isolation and disconnection from former relations are also common. Post-release depression and anxiety are common. Chronic mental illness in all its forms and acquired brain injury are also issues, as we have said. Ex-prisoners do have the availability of private and public mental health services and practitioners, but often avoid engagement due to the stigma that they carry or naive beliefs that they are or will be able to self-medicate and self-manage.

What does being on parole entail?

Parole involves former prisoners completing their sentence in the community.   Parole conditions vary from person to person. It will usually mean reporting to a community corrections officer weekly or fortnightly, e-monitoring (such as  wearing an ankle bracelet) and requirements to comply with parole conditions, which could include being barred from attending licensed premises or visiting acquaintances with whom they have committed crime. Random drug and alcohol testing is often required, and travel outside the state is often banned.

Many parolees see parole as something that is difficult to comply with; something that restricts their movements, and community corrections officers as an extension of prison officers. Increasingly, prisoners are opting to forego parole in order to complete the entire sentence in prison and avoid all of the restrictions associated with parole. Evidence supports parole as effective in reducing re-offending because most individual parole conditions include both supervision and rehabilitation conditions.

What else happens when a prisoner leaves jail?

Depending on the crime and sentence, some ex-prisoners are subject to “extended supervision orders”. This amounts to being released to prescribed accommodation. In effect, this is another form of prison, with very tight monitoring. It occurs after the full sentence has been completed, but assessments suggest that the individual is not ready for release. These ex-prisoners are free, but under constant observation and strict reporting.  Some will have requirements to report to correctional authorities, undergo monitoring, and have restrictions on where they can go and with whom they can have contact.

Extended supervision orders are very difficult to organise and manage. These orders may be effective in reducing re-offending, but they are extremely costly and extremely restrictive. There if often resistance of the public to such persons being located in the local community, and because some of these orders are implemented via ‘cottages’ located within prison grounds, the legality of a “sentence beyond the sentence” is also an issue.

Home detention, typically with an electronic ankle brace that tracks the location of the wearer, is more often used as an alternative to prison. In some jurisdictions home detention is used as part of the extended supervision order system. There are cases of individuals being able to remove and replace an ankle brace, allowing undetected movement, so this approach is questionable, particularly in reference to prisoners whose risk level is moderately high or higher.

What are the risk factors for reoffending?

Many prisoners return to the local community where they were living prior to incarceration. For many, this is a low socio-economic status area, and a high crime post code. In Victoria, 50 per cent of prisoners come from 6 per cent of the postal codes (this is likely true in other states and territories as well).

Often, prisoners are released with a $200 payment, existing debt, and no prospects. Ex-prisoners in general have difficulties finding employment and stable housing. They must then survive on a very low income.

Some of the risk factors are related to the individual and others to the community to which they return. Inter-generational criminality is now common, so families often promote crime. Personality and psychopathology contribute as well. Continuing drug and alcohol misuse is a risk factor, along with being homeless and not being employed or engaged with training services.

Forty-four per cent nationally re-offend within two years and two-thirds are unemployed at the time of that re-offending.

What sort of support do ex-prisoners need? How can psychologists help?

We know that as a cohort people who go to prison have experienced high rates of trauma and abuse, are likely to be unemployed when arrested, have low levels of schooling and high rates of mental illness, cognitive impairment and acquired brain injury.  Indigenous Australians are over-represented in the prison system by 15 times their proportion of the general population.

The support provided to ex-prisoners needs to differ person to person. It should be holistic and focus on building capacity to function well in society. Support to access employment and housing is critical for many people. Trauma-informed counselling services can be beneficial in many cases, and counselling to support alcohol and drug rehabilitation programs is also relevant to a high proportion of ex-prisoners. Ex-prisoners are eligible for the same community services that are available to anyone else. However, they are much less likely to avail themselves of those services (with the exception of housing assistance). Waiting lists and being a “low priority” customer/client make even that an issue for many.

If you can’t be anonymous, does that impact your ability or likelihood of integrating into normal life?

Former prisoners face prejudice from the community and systemic barriers to reintegration such as having to declare their criminal record to potential employers and a wide range of public agencies. Often, prison record is an indelible mark that impacts ability to establish a normal life significantly and substantially. Many prisoners report that it is difficult to be “anonymous” in the modern age. Many ex-prisoners report that people use the internet to search for details about them routinely.

How are things different when the case is a high-profile one, such as that of Schapelle Corby?

To some degree, celebrity breeds a different kind of attention. Rather than isolation, over-exposure will be an issue. To a certain extent, the prison-learned behaviours and effects are likely to be an issue for some time, and counselling would likely be beneficial. The very typical conditions associated with lack of education, unemployment, poor prospects generally, etc, are probably not as likely to impact a high-profile individual.

And what about victims of crime? What does the release of an offender mean for them?

Victims of crime are notified when the offender is released.  Due to the highly individual nature of offending and crime, victim impact can vary greatly.  In some cases, it can trigger anxiety and fear that the person may commit further crime against them.

The 13th Reintegration Puzzle Conference is in Sydney from June 21-23, 2017