About No Bars Criminal Justice Services Contact No Bars

About Criminal Justice Clients

Challenges facing Criminal Justice Clients

There are a range of socio-economic factors affecting the majority of criminal Justice clients including ex-prisoners. These include low educational attainment, problems with debt and unemployment, physical and mental health issues, homelessness, drug and alcohol problems, as well as a range of family and relationship dynamic issues that contribute to their social and economic disadvantage. In addition to this there are some specific challenges prisoners face on immediate release from prison.

The challenges discussed on this page include:

Disadvantaged Background

The majority of prisoners in NSW come from, and go back to, just 10 suburbs with 29% coming from just four postcode areas . These areas are characterised by their high levels of cumulative disadvantage; economic and social disadvantage, family stress and breakdown, low levels of literacy and high rates of unemployment.

"The increasing levels and concentrations of those with such excluding disadvantages in prisons means an increasing number of persons being released in even greater disadvantage than prior to incarceration."

Baldry, E. & Maplestone, P. (2003)3

Back to top


Finding a home can be very difficult for ex-prisoners, particularly for women with children to care for. Poor rental history and family breakdown can make it difficult for ex-prisoners to access housing support upon release. In a competitive rental market, high rent and a lack of references can exclude ex-prisoners from the private rental market. Long waits on public housing lists and a lack of beds available for emergency or supported accommodation mean that many will rely on boarding house accommodation. A lack of regulation and security in some boarding houses, however, means that many will forgo this option, particularly if other tenants include former associates they are trying to avoid.

  • A drug and alcohol issue, combined with homelessness or unstable housing is one of the most critical risk factors for reoffending.4
  • In the 2009 Inmate Health Survey it was found that 30% of prisoners (26% of male prisoners and 51% female prisoners) had difficulties with accommodation within the six months they were released.8
  • One study found that prior to incarceration 20% of prisoners were homeless. Nine months after release this number increased to 28% and a significant relationship was found between being homeless and being re-incarcerated.4

For more information visit www.gimmeshelter.org.au

Back to top

Mental Health Issues and Cognitive Impairment

Ex-prisoners with mental health issues and/or cognitive impairments, such as intellectual disabilities and acquired brain injury are vulnerable upon release. Difficulties accessing appropriate services due to their history of incarceration and problematic behaviour, including problematic substance use, may mean that they miss out on the treatment required to manage their condition. As a result, they are more likely to come to the attention of the police and other criminal justice agencies because of disordered behaviour, increasing their chances of being arrested for minor infringements.

  • Levels of mental health issues and cognitive impairment are significantly higher in the prison population than in the general community.
  • Many mental health and disability issues may be undiagnosed with 15% of men and 26% of women believing they require mental health treatment.5

For more information see Prisoner Health in NSW.

Back to top

Physical Health Issues

Individuals in contact with the criminal justice system are more likely than other members of the community to have complex physical health issues as they often partake in more risk taking behaviours. Moreover, poor health is associated with the disadvantaged communities these individuals come from which often have lower access to health care. In addition to a range of chronic conditions like poor eyesight, dental hygiene and high blood pressure, having been in prison automatically increases the risk level of contracting blood borne virus like Hepatitis C.

  • Almost half (47%) of inmates in 2009 reported suffering from an illness* or disability that bothered them for 6 months or more8, compared to 36% of Australia's general population who reported a disability or long time restrictive condition in 2008.5
  • Chronic conditions include poor eyesight, Hepatitis C, back problems, asthma, oral health problems, high blood pressure, arthritis, ulcers, epilepsy, cancers, diabetes, deafness, liver/kidney disease.4

*This included mental health issues as an illness or disability

Back to top

Out Of Home Care

There is an over representation of people in prison who have experienced episodes of childhood out of home care (as a former 'state ward' or in foster care). One reason suggested for this is based on attachment theory. It has been suggested that significant disruption of child - parent bonds will result in negative outcomes in the psychological development of the child, leading to mental health problems and psychosocial maladjustment.6

  • 22% of non Aboriginal male prisoners and 27% of non aboriginal female prisoners had been placed in out of home care as a child.7
  • 46% of Aboriginal male prisoners and 45% of Aboriginal female prisoners had been placed in out of home care as a child.7

Back to top


Many prisoners have low levels of educational attainment and had irregular school attendance all of which impacts on their ability to obtain and maintain employment post-release. For Aboriginal prisoners, educational attainment is even lower, further compounding social and economic disadvantage.

  • The average school leaving age for people in prison in 2009 was 15 years.8
  • 60% of prisoners are considered functionally illiterate or innumerate.4
  • 73% of Aboriginal male prisoners and 60% of Aboriginal female prisoners left school before Year 10.7
  • 43% of non-Aboriginal male prisoners and 39% non-Aboriginal female prisoners left school before Year 10.7

Back to top


Unemployment is common for people in the criminal justice system. Many people enter and leave custody with limited work experience and vocational training. Recent Australian research indicates that as many as 76% of people leave prison with no employment to go to and only 8% of people released from prison have employment nine months after their release from custody. Unemployment can be compounded by ex-prisoners having a criminal record and/or having a stigma attached to having been in prison. In addition, employment has a significant impact on a person's ability to connect with the community and remain out of prison.

  • Many people in prison come from areas in which unemployment is high.2
  • Ex-prisoners may have to find ways of explaining their absence from the workforce.
  • A criminal record is a significant barrier to employment.

In the six months prior to incarceration:7

  • 64% of Aboriginal men and 87% of Aboriginal women were unemployed.
  • 43% of non-Aboriginal men and 60% of non-Aboriginal women were unemployed.

Back to top


On release, many ex-prisoners have a level of debt that is impossible to repay and are likely to have lost their belongings. Many are unaware of the debt they have accumulated until they get out of prison. Debt easily escalates as electricity, phone, credit card and loan contracts are often not addressed when the person first entered prison, allowing time for debts to accumulate while incarcerated. The Prison and Debt Project in 19999 found:

  • The average debt for a male prisoner on release is $16,060.
  • The average debt for a female prisoner on release is $3,417.
  • 37% of prisoners owed money to government agencies.
  • 49% of prisoners reported committing a crime to repay a debt.

For many, debt on release from prison can seem like an insurmountable problem, hindering motivation to address the situation, which in turn can increase the risk of reoffending or relapse into problematic drug or alcohol use.

Back to top


Anecdotal evidence suggests that gambling may play a contributory role in crime. A consistent theme of alcohol use contributing significantly to impaired control of gambling behaviour has also been established.9

In NSW prisons in 1999:10

  • 35% of women and 49% of men were assessed as having 'some problem' to a 'probable pathological problem' with gambling.
  • 61% of regular female gamblers and 65% of regular male gamblers thought that gambling had caused them problems at some time.
  • 20% of women and 34% of men stated that gambling had contributed to their current imprisonment.
  • 25% of female regular gamblers and 32% of male regular gamblers felt they would like help with their gambling problem.

Back to top

Social Isolation

Many people leave prison or rehabilitation treatment services with the intention of ceasing contact with former associates. This may help by offering a fresh start, but can often lead to social isolation. Ex-prisoners are also frequently estranged from family and community support and find themselves living in locations where they are unfamiliar with services and community facilities. This is often intensified for prisoners from a culturally and linguistically diverse background (see Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Prisoners for more information).

Ex-prisoners also frequently become socially isolated from mainstream society through poor self esteem associated with their histories of low levels of education, institutionalisation, and issues with their appearance (e.g. missing teeth and prison tattoos) and poor social skills.

Back to top

Short Time in Prison

Nearly a third of prisoners in NSW serve sentences of less than two years1 and many cycle in and out of the prison system on multiple shorter sentences. Even a short sentence is long enough for someone to lose their accommodation, their job, disrupt families and lose custody of children. Sentences of less than six months also impact on a prisoner's ability to access therapeutic programs while in custody, to be eligible for drug and alcohol programs you must be serving a sentence of more than six months. It should be noted that while many in the community may think NSW prisons are full of people serving life or lengthy sentences for serious offences, the reality is that most prisoners are serving shorter and multiple sentences for less serious offences.

For more information on classification see Prisoners in NSW.

Back to top

Challenges on Immediate Release

Whether being released from court or being released from custody after a short or long period, people often have a number of immediate, practical challenges to address. For people attempting to get treatment in a drug and alcohol service, some of these practical challenges can have a major detrimental effect on accessing and receiving treatment. These challenges include travel, accommodation, money, clothing, lack of identification and family reconnections.

On release from prison, the first 72 hours are a critical period for people at risk of overdose and the first two weeks are critical for relapse into drug and alcohol misuse and reoffending. It is crucial for those wishing to access drug and alcohol rehabilitation on release from prison to be able to do so as quickly as possible. Often the pathway from a correctional centre to a drug and alcohol rehabilitation service can be long. The additional challenges of identification, accommodation, transport and money can quickly divert individuals from accessing the services they need.

Back to top

Getting from Prison to Rehab

The majority of NSW correctional centres are in regional areas with minimal and infrequent transport options. While Corrective Services NSW issue prisoners being released a ticket for travel by public transport to the place of arrest, travel options may be limited in regional areas. Many individuals will find themselves with a lot of time before the next available train or bus (sometimes 24 hours). Often the place of arrest is often a location where individuals will have associations they are trying to cut ties with and may not want to risk rekindling those connections.

Back to top

Lack of Identification

Often individuals are released from custody with no identification (ID) other than their MIN number and Discharge Certificate. It can be challenging to gain enough ID points to open back accounts or even to access some drug and alcohol services. Having the right kind of ID can often be a deciding factor in accessing a range of services including drug and alcohol programs. This creates a practical barrier for individuals who want to access drug and alcohol programs. Navigating the system in order to regain documents of identification and then being able to pay for them can be difficult. The CRC resource - Getting Out - provides practical advice on where individuals may be able to obtain a range of identification documents.

Back to top

Limited Finances

On release, ex-prisoners will be given whatever funds are left in their prison bank account. If they have been in prison for 14 days or more individuals are eligible for a Centrelink crisis payment. The crisis payment does provide some immediate financial relief, however it is issued as a one week advance payment of the regular fortnightly payment. This means in the next fortnight people have only one week of Centrelink payment on which to get by for a fortnight. This can be very difficult as people will often need to organise basic essentials like food, clothing, toiletries as well as travel costs, accommodation and furniture.

For more information on the Centrelink crisis payment you can download a brochure here PDF (839kb).

Back to top

Reconnecting with Family

The prison experience can often have the effect of weakening or even discouraging family or other positive social support for people and reconnecting with family on release can be a challenging experience. Families are often hurt by the offending behaviour and its impacts upon them, rebuilding trust and reconnecting is often a concern for those on release from prison. Many families can become estranged due to trauma inflicted by the offending behaviour. For other families, traditional family roles often have altered while the family member is in prison, on release this can lead to frustration and a feeling of no longer knowing where they fit in. Child custody and/or visitation arrangements often need to be arranged and the pressure and frustrations of negotiating these re-connections can contribute to an increased risk in relapse of problematic drug and alcohol use and offending behaviour.

Back to top

For More Information

CRC have produced the resources Planning Your Release - NSW Exit Checklist (for females / for males) and Getting Out : Your Guide to Surviving on the Outside for Individuals Exiting Prison. These resources will give you a good idea of the range of challenges ex-prisoners have to face on release from prison and offer advice on where and how individuals can access support. These resources are a great guide for staff and clients.

Back to top


A selection of the references used in No Bars along with other related publications can be found on the Research And Publications page.

  1. Corben, S. (2009) NSW Inmate Census 2009: Summary of Characteristics, Sydney: Corrective Services NSW
  2. Vinson, T. (1999). Unequal in Life, Select Committee.
  3. Baldry, E. & Maplestone, P. (2003) Barriers to Social and Economic inclusion for those leaving prison.
  4. Baldry, E. et. al. (2003) Ex-prisoners & accommodation: What bearings do different forms of housing have on social reintegration for ex-prisoners, Position paper 27, AHURI, Sydney: UNSW & UWS Research Centre.
  5. Butler T. & Milner L., (2003) The 2001 NSW Inmate Health Survey, Sydney: Corrections Health Service.
  6. Bowlby, J. (1982) Attachment and Loss: Vol 1 Attachment. Basic Books: New York. (Originally published 1969).
  7. Indig, D.et. al. (2009) 2009 NSW Inmate Health Survey: Key Findings Report. Sydney: Justice Health.
  8. Vinson T. (1999). Unequal in Life, Select Committee.
  9. Stringer, A. (1999) The Prison and Debt Project, Queensland: Prisoners Legal Service Inc.
  10. Baron, E. & Dickerson, M. (1999) 'Alcohol Consumption and Self-Control of Gambling Behaviour,' Journal of Gambling Studies, 15 (1): 3-15, Spring 1999, Human Services Press, Sydney.
  11. Corben, S. (2009) NSW Inmate Census 2009: Summary of Characteristics, Sydney: Corrective Services NSW.

"Prisoners and their problems do not fall from the sky.

They come from families, they live in neighbourhoods and they belong to communities."

Prof. Tony Vinson, 19992