The ACT has the highest levels of reincarceration of all Australian states and territories with 71 percent of individuals returning to prison or receiving a community corrections order within two years.

For the first time in the territory, a study has been undertaken by UNSW Canberra investigating the lived experiences of individuals following their release from the Alexander Maconochie Centre.

The research focused specifically on the challenges faced, and what services could have been provided to better assist these individuals in ensuring they don’t return to prison.

Dr Caroline Doyle, who led the research with support from UNSW Canberra's Dr David Pfotenhauer, as well Professor Lorana Bartels and Dr Anthony Hopkins from the Australian National University, said reincarceration rates can offer policymakers some insight into whether prison works.

“However, reincarceration is a complex social issue which involves a range of variables such as unemployment, drug use, policing, homelessness, mental health issues and social supports. 

“What we don’t have a good understanding of is – why? What challenges do individuals face post-release to ensure they don’t return to prison,” she said.

Dr Doyle said it is important to acknowledge that individuals who are incarcerated feel as though they have hit ‘rock bottom’ and that there are a lot of unknowns leading up to their release date.

“They are thinking about whether they will find accommodation, how will their family and friends accept them following release, will I find employment?”

With housing identified as a major issue for those who are about to be released from prison, Dr Doyle said that the majority of participants spoke about having access to suitable housing and that this was an important factor in ensuring they achieve their goal of not returning to prison.

“And what do we mean by suitable housing? One of the participants said it best when they said: ‘it is about a place where my mum wants to stay for a cup of coffee. Where I don’t feel embarrassed to say this is my home.’

“The good news on this front is that ACT Justice and Community Safety Directorate has identified the housing challenges. They are currently addressing the issue with the Justice Housing Project, which seeks to address issues with the availability of housing and suitable housing for individuals involved with the criminal justice system,” Dr Doyle said.

Aside from housing, is it simply a matter of not enough support services available in the ACT for these individuals?

Dr Doyle said this isn’t the case, rather the issue is that people are not aware of the support available to them.

“One participant spoke about how they had heard of some service providers, but for them it was just a lot of unknowns. So, for them it is just easier to close that door and forget about it. I’ve heard about it, but it’s just a door I’ve closed. Forget about it,” she said.

“The recommendation is therefore that information about the service providers could be provided in a more user-friendly manner and provided on multiple occasions.

“By doing this, it would take into account the high levels of anxiety experienced by individuals not only when they are incarcerated but also leading up to their release date. This is also about providing support that is appropriate for individuals and their particular circumstances.”