From locked up to locked down

Opinion: Release from prison is difficult for former inmates at the best of times. Covid-19 restrictions are making it even more challenging, writes Alice Mills.

An image shows the rooftop of Mt Eden Prison, Auckland: former inmates released during Covid-19 face difficult times. Photo: iStock
Mt Eden Prison, Auckland: former inmates released during Covid-19 face difficult times. Photo: iStock

As the Covid-19 lockdown continues, more details are emerging about conditions in New Zealand prisons.

While there are no confirmed cases of Covid-19 in jails in New Zealand, prisoners have reportedly been locked up in their cells for over 22 hours a day, a situation the campaign group People Against Prisons argues represents solitary confinement and breaches the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.

However, there has been little discussion of the predicament of those released from prison during the lockdown period, a highly disproportionate number of whom are Māori and already suffering the ongoing destructive effects of colonisation and institutional racism.

For many, adjusting to life outside prison is already a highly challenging and frustrating experience, which will be made substantially worse by measures introduced to prevent the spread of Covid-19 into prisons, and the wider community lockdown.

All ‘non-essential’ movement in and out of prisons, including visits from whānau, reintegration service providers and community volunteers, has been suspended. Instead, prisoners have been given an extra $5 phone card each week and Corrections has installed extra phones. But with just a short time outside of cells to use them, the opportunity to make post-release arrangements is likely to remain severely restricted.

Most people released from prison are eligible for a $350 ‘Steps to Freedom’ grant which is designed to cover their expenses for the first two weeks after release. This amount has not increased since the 1990s and is widely known to be wholly inadequate for even basic living costs, a situation exacerbated by increasing food prices and limited shopping opportunities during lockdown.

Finding post-prison employment will be almost impossible in a climate where many employers who typically hire former prisoners, such as those in hospitality, are shut or cutting back on staff, and Corrections’ employment activities, like Release to Work, are suspended.

Homelessness is common among those released from prison in New Zealand, with less than half having long-term accommodation. The majority will, initially at least, live with whānau or friends, many of whom will already be under substantial financial stress and may struggle with another mouth to feed.

Such accommodation is often precarious because of overcrowding, financial pressures, conflicts, and relationship breakdowns. The need to stay at home is likely to exacerbate any possible tension and former prisoners often find themselves bouncing between friends’ couches and other forms of unstable housing.

Community groups, such as PARS and the Salvation Army, provide a range of accommodation options for those leaving prison, which include the Supported Accommodation scheme, funded by Corrections, which provides 13 weeks’ accommodation for those who have served two or more years in prison. However, while those in this accommodation may continue living there during the lockdown, new clients will struggle to access such services.

Corrections has stated it will provide emergency accommodation for people released under lockdown, which is mostly likely to be in motels or boarding houses. It is unclear whether these provisions also apply to those released from court or what support is offered to people in this accommodation. The question also remains as to how long such accommodation will be provided for. Will those in Corrections-provided accommodation find themselves homeless as and when the lockdown is eased to Level 2 or beyond?

Reintegration services are classed as essential, but assessments for these services must now be conducted by phone rather than face to face. Post-release support, including assistance with budgeting and applying for benefits and employment, will be of heightened importance at this time, but should be provided remotely by phone, text or email.

Although Corrections is issuing people with basic pre-paid cell phones, these may require additional credit, and with libraries and internet cafes closed, those released from prison will find it harder than ever to get assistance from WINZ and other agencies. And to be most effective, reintegration services need to develop strong relationships with their clients, a real challenge if they can’t meet them face to face.

Finally, post-prison reintegration needs to be more than a physical transition into the community. To be successful, it requires social integration and the development and maintenance of meaningful relationships with others. Some will be able to have this through their whānau, but for others without existing social connections, those that usually help them, like church and community groups and their volunteers, may remain inaccessible throughout the lockdown.

In short, people leaving prison are likely to be more socially isolated than ever and we need to critically consider how our current systems are failing them.

JustSpeak has called on the Government to extend its message of kindness to those within our justice system and to reduce the prison population. This kindness should also be extended to those on release from prison if we want to give them a chance of a new and better life.

Dr Alice Mills is a senior lecturer in criminology in the Faculty of Arts.

This article reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily the views of the University of Auckland.

Used with permission from Newsroom From locked up to locked down 12 May 2020.

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