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Beyond the gate: Former female prisoners failed by system

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Women are being left behind by Victoria's parole system (image via Twitter @AJEnglish).

Current standards around parole and release are harming vulnerable women, writes Cate Altamura.

SAMANTHA HARRIS* served her minimum prison sentence but had to stay in the Dame Phyllis Frost Centre a further five months because under Victoria’s parole system she could not be released without a place to stay.

“My earliest date was in June and I didn’t get out until November, because Corrections (Victoria) wouldn’t let me out,” says Harris.

Shockingly, she then said:

“They wouldn’t give me parole because I didn’t have an address. So, it was a catch-22 in there.”

Originally sentenced for six years for armed robbery, Harris became eligible for parole after serving four years.

Harris grew up in the western suburbs of Sydney and life was rough due to poverty and violence at home.

Her destitute parents taught Harris and her four young siblings how to steal, steering them down a dangerous path that would eventually lead to a life of crime and addiction.

Harris told IA:

I grew up in a very violent family lifestyle and was brought up to do a lot of crime in my childhood. My mum would take us out stealing and taught us all how to fight. It was a full-on life.

 

My mum got stuck with five kids and we didn’t have any food. As my dad was never around, we had to steal food and clothes to survive.

Harris’ father lived a life of crime and although the Harris children had their mother around, she was especially abusive to Samantha.

“If anyone would touch us she’d punch on but then there were times where she would bash us too”.

Now in her late 40’s, Harris sits across me in an inner-city café telling me her story. Harris is small in stature but downright tough. Life inside, coupled with her background, has taken its toll.

Harris owned a home at the time of her conviction and lost it all when she went inside.

“The thing that played on my mind in prison was that I had a home and a mortgage, I had a life [outside]. It was the fact of losing that and [the thought] of what I was coming out to,” says Harris.

Flat Out, a support service for women leaving prison, eventually assisted Harris to find a place to stay.

Jack Argyll, the former Executive Officer at Flat Out says:

Releasing somebody into homelessness or god-awful temporary accommodation like a motel or caravan park is not good. It's not conducive to a healthy beginning. If they said, 'yes you can leave on parole if you've got housing' and then provided that housing, then that would be the best outcome possible, but Corrections has limited housing.

Former female prisoners' needs are complex and the moment women like Harris step through the prison gates, homelessness and trying to fit into a society that has changed, replace the confines of prison.

Argyll said a serious lack of temporary housing existed in Victoria.

“In terms of housing funding, for bricks and mortar, there’s a serious lack.”

Many former prisoners need to start over again, often having lost everything as a result of being incarcerated.

“Once women go to jail, they lose their housing and their kids. If they have a job, they will lose their job. Everything they have and all their possessions too,” said Argyll.

“I’ve been out for a while (and) I’m still trying to find myself. You lose yourself in there,” said Harris.

Women were at greater risk of homelessness compared to male prisoners, according to a recent report by Corrections Victoria.

“It was reported that 44 per cent of women compared with 22 per cent of men in 2013-14 were homeless at the end of their placement,” wrote the author of the report, Matthew Willis.

According to another report compiled for Corrections Victoria, 35 per cent of women leaving prison cited issues related to family reunification, followed by more than 32 per cent naming housing as an anticipated obstacle upon their release.  

Michelle McDonnell from Smart Justice – which is supported by a coalition of organisations led by the Victorian Federation of Community Legal Centres – highlights some of the sentencing problems.

“The statistics say 87 per cent of women who go to jail are actually victims of sexual, physical or emotional abuse,” McDonnell said.

“The fact that we are putting so many women in prison who are victims themselves is crazy.”

Being given parole allows the women to complete their sentence outside of prison with a strict set of rules. However, while the prison gates do not bind them, they are not completely free.

For women who have parole conditions attached to their release, it was necessary for them to secure housing whilst still in prison.

Argyll told IA

"Usually to be eligible to apply for parole they have to have done all the programs in prison and then they have to have somewhere to go. And that’s a big problem because obviously while they are stuck in jail they can’t go flat hunting or contact housing services."

These difficulties with parole can translate to women like Harris remaining in prison past their release date or accepting sub-par accommodation to get out.

Today, Harris suffers from depression and anxiety which were all exacerbated from her time in prison.

She says, ruefully:

You get mentally messed up in there. For girls doing a long time inside they’ve got no idea about the outside. It’s a whole different world to them when they finally get out.

 

I’ve been put in an area [upon release] that is drug affiliated and you see it everywhere. So, I started stressing out. I’m not a drug user but I was in the past and I started thinking I was put in this area to fail. It made me paranoid.

Harris is grateful for her unit but the demons from being incarcerated are hard to shake:

“You’re free, I can walk to the shop, I can jump on a tram and I’m not hearing ‘10 minutes to count’. I’m not dealing with screws and l’ve got this freedom but it’s a really weird feeling because you get so used to the life inside.”

For some men exiting prison, the Judy Lazarus Centre provides a pathway back into society, but there is no such centre for women.

“There is absolutely nothing whereas men have the Judy Lazarus Transitional Centre. It stops them having to enter the world feeling anxious and scared and it’s time where they can ‘get their shit together’. Women don’t have that”, McDonnell said.

A similar centre would assist women like Harris transition, especially those who are dealing with mental health issues.

“Women have never been considered a significant part of the prison population, so they don’t have the services that are there for men,” McDonnell said.

Harris is not denying she had to pay her dues but recognises more needs to be done to prepare women prior to exiting prison. “At the end of the day, it’s your parole day and it’s like ‘see you’,” says Harris.

Her final thought was resounding:

“I think Corrections need to get more housing and they need to play their part and get girls ready for the outside world.”

Cate Altamura is a freelance journalist and has worked in Uganda as a broadcast reporter.

*Samantha Harris’ name has been changed to protect her privacy as at the time of the interview she was still on parole.

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