We are leaving people released from prison vulnerable

Research shows that people released from prison are more likely to be the victims of violence, especially those with a mental illness or substance use disorder

Melissa Willoughby, University of Melbourne

Melissa Willoughby

Published 13 September 2021

There is a widespread (but mistaken) assumption that people who have been in prison and people who have been victims of violence are two mutually exclusive groups.

Our research shows that this is not the case.

Instead, people released from prison are considerably more likely than the general population to be victims of violence. And this risk is even greater for those released from prison with a mental illness and/or a substance use disorder.

People who have been to prison are more likely to be victims of violence after their release. Picture: Getty Image

Our study, just published in Drug and Alcohol Review, examined how frequently people released from prison in the Australian state of Queensland had contact with ambulance, emergency departments or hospital services for injuries related to being a victim of violence. The data draws on the results of interviews with a cohort of people released from prison between 2008 and 2010 as part of the previously published Passports Study.

We also examined what made a person released from prison more likely than others to experience violence victimisation.

We found that more than 18 per cent of some 1,238 people (Passports Study) who were released from prison in the two years prior to the end of July 2010 ended up being a victim of violence by mid-2012.

In comparison, the Australian Bureau of Statistics data shows that over a similar period just three per cent of the general Queensland population had reported being a victim of violence within the previous 12 months.

The Passports Study had interviewed people just before they were released from prison and asked them about their health. The study then linked their prison records to their health records. We used these health records to look at violence victimisation among people released from prison.

This linking of records helps to tell the story of a group of people’s experiences by bringing together information on the same person from different sources in a way that protects that person’s privacy.

We looked at health records up to four years after release from prison to see if anyone had contact with health services as a result of being a victim of violence.

Being a victim of violence is a common thread that runs through the lives of many people who have been to prison. Many people in prison, especially women, were also victims of violence before they had contact with the criminal justice system.

Researchers examined records of people released from prison to gauge violence-related contact with health services. Picture: Getty Images

Another reason for becoming a victim of violence can be connected to why some people had contact with the criminal justice system in the first place.

For example, they may be misidentified by police as the primary aggressor in a family violence incident, or use substances as a coping mechanism after being a victim of violence, and are subsequently charged with using or possessing illicit substances.

Our research shows that many people continue to experience violence after they are released from prison.

This violence may negatively impact their mental or physical health, exacerbate existing health issues or even result in death. More must be done to prevent these people from becoming victims of violence.

It’s concerning because people who have been to prison are often some of the most vulnerable and marginalised members of the community. Many people in prison have experienced mental illness, substance use disorders, chronic illnesses, homelessness and poverty.

People who experience racism – like Indigenous people – are more likely than non-Indigenous people to be incarcerated. The health and social inequities that people who have been to prison experience is likely to be a key driver of both their incarceration and the violence they experience.

Violence can also have long-lasting impacts on health beyond any immediate physical injury. These include chronic pain, disability, mental illness and substance use problems.

People who have been to prison are often among the most vulnerable or marginalised in our society. Picture: Getty Images

Beyond the real personal suffering, the health impacts of violence are a significant burden on our public health institutions. So, our social obligation to reduce violence victimisation among people released from prison is likely to have measurable public health, public safety and economic benefits.

Our research suggests that improving mental health and substance use treatment for people who experience incarceration may help to reduce violence victimisation in this extremely marginalised population.

In the general population, substance use and mental illness are also common among victims of violence and it isn’t always clear why this is the case.

There are multiple factors which may influence a person’s risk of becoming a victim of violence.

One possible explanation is that the effects of substance use, which often occurs in response to life chaos and trauma, may make some people more vulnerable to violence. The same may be true of the symptoms of mental illness.

Providing improved mental health and substance use treatment in prison would be a good start toward addressing the problem, but isn’t sufficient. In order to have a sustained impact, treatment must be commenced in prison and delivered uninterrupted as people transition from prison back to the community.

Without this, people released from prison will continue to have poor health and be victims of violence.

Banner: Getty Images

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