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Leaving prison for good: The critical role of safe and secure housing

Access to safe and secure housing is a fundamental human right. It provides a solid foundation for a person’s health, wellbeing and agency, and helps build more productive and cohesive communities. Across Australia, however, it is estimated that approximately one in seven people who have been in prison need assistance from a specialist homelessness service when they re-enter the community.

When people who leave prison don’t have a safe and secure place to live, it’s significantly more challenging for them to gain employment, attend appointments and stay away from drugs and alcohol – all important influences that can reduce reoffending. Housing can be the difference between whether a person will return to prison or get their life back on track. Australian research has confirmed this, with one study finding that when people had unstable accommodation upon leaving prison, they were three times more likely to return to prison within just nine months.

Australia’s prison population has risen significantly over the past decade, notwithstanding a slight decline in numbers due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In June 2020, there were 40,000 people in prison with nearly 60 per cent having been in prison before.

Prisons are expensive, costing Australian taxpayers $120,450 per person in prison each year. But the greatest cost of imprisonment is on the lives of individuals and families who are directly affected. Prisons are often traumatic environments that separate people from homes, families, and communities, compounding pre-existing disadvantage and increasing the need for support. Jesuit Social Services believes that prison should only ever be used as a last resort.

Prisons are expensive, costing Australian taxpayers $120,450 per person in prison each year. But the greatest cost of imprisonment is on the lives of individuals and families who are directly affected.

The critical role of a safe and secure home in supporting people to reconnect with the community and address the factors influencing their offending was recognised in the recently released final report of the Inquiry into Victoria’s Criminal Justice System. Drawing on our extensive experience working with justice-involved people, Jesuit Social Services gave evidence at a public hearing and made a submission to the Inquiry.

In June 2020, Jesuit Social Services partnered with the Victorian Government to launch the Maribyrnong Community Residential Facility to provide accommodation and critical wrap-around supports for men exiting prison. As of April 2022, only nine per cent of men who had been accommodated at the facility had returned to prison (11 out of 124 men).

The facility was initially opened to stop the transmission of COVID-19 in the community, however, its success alongside advocacy undertaken by Jesuit Social Services has seen the program continue. In this year’s Victorian budget, the program’s funding was extended for a fourth time.

Initiatives such as the Maribyrnong Community Residential Facility demonstrate how providing a secure place for someone to live can enable them to access health services and learning and pathways to learning and employment, providing both short and long-term benefits.

Jesuit Social Services has long called on governments to prevent people from coming into contact with the criminal justice system in the first place. This includes ensuring people with multiple and complex needs have access to social housing – that is, subsidised and supported housing as an alternative to the private rental market.

We also continue to call on all Australian governments to invest more in transitional and long-term housing options to give people exiting the justice system the best chance to get their lives back on track and to build safer, more just communities. 

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