“There’s a harsh truth to face. No way I’m gonna make it on the outside. All I do any more is think of ways to break my parole, so maybe they’d send me back … All I want is to be back where things make sense. Where I won’t have to be afraid all the time.” – The Shawshank Redemption.
Being sent to prison can be a traumatic and distressing experience, especially for first-time prisoners. But rarely do people take into account what it’s like to leave.
Adam Johns* remembers the day he left. He got out at 8.30am on July 15, this year. He strode out in the same clothes he entered in with a huge smile on his face – a free man.
“Nothing fit me any more, I had shirts with buttons popping out and my suit jacket was a bit tight in the shoulders, but at the end of the day I would have walked out in my jocks,” Johns says. “I just didn’t want to wear green any more.”
Johns is a former drug dealer. He says he sold drugs to support an expensive ice addiction. He was caught with 50 grams of the drug in 2007 and sentenced to four years imprisonment for drug possession and intent to sell and supply.
He was released on parole after 26 months. At first Johns was jubilant, but he soon felt unprepared and overwhelmed by the free world. On his first day of freedom he went to Centrelink to collect his crisis payment, a sum all prisoners receive when released.
Getting settled back into the community was more difficult than Johns realised. After his release he found there was too much to look at, too many people. He remembers feeling claustrophobic on his first trip to the shopping centre in more than two years.
He ended up with a throbbing headache and a sore neck and buckled into bed as soon as he got home. It took him a full day to recover.
“It’s been a few months now and I’m just starting to get back into it,” Johns says. “It’s a very overwhelming feeling to be in one place that you can’t leave and then to walk around among people, shops, cars and there’s no restriction on what you can do.”
According to the Department of Corrective Services, more attention is being paid to the issue of prisoner re-entry into the community and it is seen as a significant issue of crime prevention in the Australian criminal system.
An Australian Bureau of Statistics study released in August found that while a period of imprisonment may deter some people from re-offending, in others it may foster further criminal behaviour. Johns agrees that prison can encourage criminal behaviour because of the difficulties offenders face trying to reintegrate into society. The temptation to go back to a life of crime is always there because he knows how easy it would be.
“I lived like a king for a long time,” he says. “I had cars and girls and money, but it’s all over now, back to square one. You get out and you’ve got nothing. You get out and things have changed.” Johns says he feels blessed to have the support of his family and friends. Thanks to them he has free accommodation, a job as a bricklayer, and access to any other support he may need.
“Without that I don’t know how other people do it. That’s why they go straight back to jail. They get out and they go straight back in,” he says. “There are a lot of guys who are better off on the inside. Trying to work out where to live and getting straight to get money for food is too difficult.”
University of Western Australia associate professor of crime research David Indermaur says, if nothing else, prison provides a structured environment that solves a lot of the immediate problems. Those who display criminal behaviour struggle to cope with relationships, interpersonal problems and finding employment – things that most of us take for granted.
After working in WA prisons for more than 10 years, Indermaur has seen many prisoners who could not cope on the outside and committed a crime specifically to get back into prison. He says the key factors associated with an offender not returning to prison are having a job, stable accommodation, and having a relationship.
Outcare is WA’s only non-government organisation that provides programs and support for prisoners re-entering society. Its re-entry service provides support and life skills sessions for prisoners before and up to six months after release. He says that, while they offer other services, ex-prisoners have to badger them for information. “A lot of people get out and don’t know there are services available. I would have thought there’d be more support, more services that they provide,” Indermaur says.
Indermaur says the old work-release system that was in place when he was a psychologist at Fremantle prison should be brought back. Under the work-release system the last six months of a prisoner’s sentence was spent in a half-way house situation, where offenders sleep in a facility at night and join a work environment during the day. “That gives them structure while getting their affairs in order back in the community,” Indermaur says.
A variation of this system still operates in some parts of WA. Six prisoner work camps run in regional communities across the state where prisoners live and work with an officer for the benefit of the community. These camps are not open to everyone. They can only hold 20 minimum security prisoners at a time.
Indermaur says it would be great to see the law changed so nobody who went into prison came out cold: “I think that’s a great flaw in the system. A more enlightened system would see every prisoner get a soft landing back into the community for the sake of the prisoner and for the sake of the community.”
DCS media officer Brian Cowie says in the past two years considerable progress has been made toward the amount and quality of programs, resulting in higher participation levels from offenders in prisons and the community. Specialist programs are offered to address addiction, violent offending, sex offending and to enhance a prisoner’s cognitive skills.
Cowie says the department gives offenders the opportunity to join programs and interventions but, ultimately, it is up to the individual to change: “It requires more than a program to turn a life around, particularly if people return to the same dysfunctional lifestyle that may have led to their offending in the first place.”
Johns says no course will work if people don’t make an effort: “I’ve heard it that many times – ‘I want to stop’, ‘I want to quit’. They’re all full of s**t. It doesn’t matter how much support or help people give you, if you don’t want to change you’re not going to.”
*Real name withheld
Published in the Western Independent October 2010