Closing the revolving door

21 January 2016
Closing the revolving door: A new report on civil legal services for Victorian prisoners shows 60 per cent have experienced homelessness.

Justice Connect Homeless Law has released a 12 month report on their Debt and Tenancy Legal Help for Prisoners Project (the Project). 

The report captures the findings of the Project which commenced in August 2014.  In its first 12 months, 96 clients received legal advice and representation with debts, housing and fines. 

The Project provides a monthly clinic for prisoners at Port Phillip Prison staffed by lawyers from Corrs Chambers Westgarth, and provides legal assistance via phone appointments and appearances via video link for other Victorian prisoners in partnership with pro bono law firms. The Project was generously funded by The Ian Potter Foundation and collaboratively supported by G4S. 

The Project was developed in response to the high level of unmet civil legal need of Victorian prisoners, recognising the links between homelessness and imprisonment: 35 per cent of prisoners are homeless prior to entry into prison and 43 per cent exit into homelessness. Research regarding Victorian and NSW prisoners found that former prisoners are more than twice as likely to return to prison within nine months of release if they are homeless.

Through the provision of legal representation, Homeless Law has assisted 25 Victorian prisoners to avoid eviction. These 25 people have returned, or will return, to their homes instead of being released from prison into homelessness.

With recent figures showing that Victoria’s recidivism rate is at an all-time high, with 44.9 per cent of released prisoners re-entering prison, and knowing that incarceration costs approximately $98,389.40 per person per year, sustaining tenancies and improving chances of successful reintegration is an important component of tackling Victoria’s personally and financially costly imprisonment rate.

Based on the evidence and insights gained from providing legal representation to almost 100 clients, 60 per cent of whom were homeless before they entered prison, Homeless Law makes five recommendations for improving access to justice, preventing homelessness and reducing disadvantage for Victorian prisoners:
 

1.    Expand targeted specialist civil legal services for Victorian prisoners

2.    Strengthen pre and post release supports for prisoners

3.    Build links between legal and non-legal services and support collaboration and co-ordination

4.    Retain provisions that allow prisoners to address fines while in prison

5.    Improve policies and programs that sustain housing for prisoners

Through resolving debts and sustaining tenancies, Homeless Law will continue to work to close the revolving door between homelessness and the prison system. 

PDF iconRead the full Prison Project Twelve Month Report

The report captures the findings of Homeless Law’s Debt and Tenancy Legal Help for Prisoners Project (the Project) which commenced in August 2014.  In its first 12 months, 96 Victorian prisoners received legal advice and representation with debts, tenancy and fines. 

The Project was developed in response to the high level of unmet civil legal need of Victorian prisoners. It recognises the links between homelessness and imprisonment: 35% of prisoners are homeless prior to entry into prison and 43% exit into homelessness. Research regarding Victorian and NSW prisoners found that former prisoners are more than twice as likely to return to prison within nine months of release if they are homeless.

Given the current context in which Victoria’s imprisonment rate has increased by 40.5% in the last five years and almost half Victorian prisoners end up re-entering prison, efforts to prevent prisoners exiting into homelessness, support reintegration and reduce reoffending are timely.

Through the Project Homeless Law provides a monthly legal clinic for prisoners at Port Phillip Prison staffed by lawyers from Corrs Chambers Westgarth, and delivers legal assistance via phone appointments and appearances via video link for other Victorian prisoners in partnership with pro bono law firms. The Project was generously funded by The Ian Potter Foundation and collaboratively supported by G4S. 

The report collates the data and insights from the Project’s first 12 months of operation. Based on that evidence, Homeless Law makes 12 observations on access to justice for Victorian prisoners and five key recommendations for improving access to justice, preventing homelessness and reducing disadvantage for Victorian prisoners. 

Some of the key observations contained in the 12 month report include:

1.    Prisoners have high levels of vulnerability

Based on the information provided by clients at their initial appointments at Port Phillip Prison, we know that of the clients we are assisting:

  • 60% were homeless prior to entering prison
  • 52% have, or have had, alcohol or drug dependence issues
  • 37% have mental health issues
  • 30% have an intellectual disability or an acquired brain injury (ABI)
  • 24% have a physical disability.

These figures paint a picture of high levels of vulnerability amongst the prisoners Homeless Law was assisting.  This is consistent with the growing understanding of the links between disadvantage and imprisonment, including the 2015 report of the Victorian Ombudsman, which identified that 40% of prisoners have history of mental illness, 6% of male prisoners and 14% of female prisoners have completed high school and that the average prisoner is unemployed at the time of committing the offence. 

2.    Preventing prisoners exiting into homelessness makes social and financial sense

Through the provision of legal representation, Homeless Law has assisted 25 Victorian prisoners to avoid eviction. These 25 people have returned, or will return, to their homes instead of being released from prison into homelessness.

Using figures from a 2013 Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute study, this represents a cost saving of $736,250 to the health, justice and welfare systems.  Given that all 25 of the prisoners were in public housing, the costs of support if evicted would have been approximately $850,000.

The Project’s eviction prevention work is underpinned by research showing the links between homelessness and re-offending.  With recent figures showing that Victoria’s recidivism rate is at an all-time high, with 44.9% of released prisoners re-entering prison, and knowing that incarceration costs approximately $98,389.40 per person per year, sustaining tenancies and improving chances of successful reintegration is an important component of tackling Victoria’s personally and financially costly imprisonment rate.

3.    There is a clear need for legal and financial services in prison

In the first 12 months of the Project, the Port Phillip Prison clinic received 218 referrals.

Of the 218 prisoners referred to the Project:

  • 85% had a debt or credit issue
  • 43% had an infringements issue
  • 30% had a tenancy or housing issue
  • 47% had a combination of two or more legal issues.

These figures demonstrate high levels of need for civil legal assistance and financial counselling amongst prisoners in Port Phillip Prison.

4.    Addressing debts enables prisoners to exit prison with a clean slate

The most common legal issue for clients of the Project are credit and debt problems. Clients with debts have expressed concerns regarding the impact that these issues will have on their ability to re-establish themselves in the community upon release, for example in applying for private rental or community housing, getting a new mobile phone, or applying for a bank loan or credit card. During their initial appointments, 69% of clients told us their financial situation will place stress on their relationships when they leave prison, while 72% of the clients reported feeling ‘worried’ or ‘very worried’ about the financial issues they will face when they leave prison.

Addressing debts in prison allows people to exit prison with a ‘clean slate’ and better equipped to find their feet post-release. One client explained to his lawyers that he believed that unless his debts were sorted out, he was not confident he would be in a position to secure housing, which in turn would prevent him being able to care for his young son.

Through resolving debts and sustaining tenancies so prisoners are released into safe housing, the Project continues working to close the revolving door between homelessness and the prison system. 

If you or a client could benefit from the services of the Debt and Tenancy Legal Help for Prisoners Project, please contact us on 1800 606 313.