Understanding Life in Prison

Prisoner demographics:

There has been a 70.8% increase in the number of prisoners since 2007 with 7100 prisoners as of 2017. In 2017 males made up 92.1% of the Victorian prison population. Of the overall prison population, 8.5% were of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent. Fifty percent of prisoners had been previously incarcerated. Prisoners were most frequently incarcerated for assault (22.3%), drug (14.4%), sex (13.1%), burglary (10.2%), property (9%) and breach of order (7%) offences. Eighty-eight percent of prisoners had not completed secondary school education, while 5.8% had completed secondary, trade/technical or tertiary education (Corrections Victoria, 2018).

Victorian prisons:

There are 11 publically operated prisons across Victoria and prisoners will often move through different prisons during their sentence. Ideally, prisoners will progress to minimum security prisons as they complete their sentence, although this is highly dependent on several factors (e.g. prisoner behaviour, willingness of prisoner, availability of beds, full prisons etc.).

Maximum security:

  • Melbourne Remand Centre
  • Melbourne Assessment Prison
  • Barwon Prison
  • Port Phillip Prison (Private)

Medium security:

  • Marngoneet Correctional Centre
  • Hopkins Correctional Centre
  • Ravenhall Correctional Centre
  • Loddon Prison
  • Fulham Correctional Centre (Private)

Minimum security:

  • Beechworth Correctional Centre
  • Dhurringile Correctional Centre
  • Judy Lazarus Transition Centre
  • Langi Kal Kal Prison

Women’s prisons:

  • Dame Phyllis Frost Centre (DPFC)
  • Tarrengower Prison

Forensic psychiatric hospital:

  • Thomas Embling Hospital

Prison classification:

  • Mainstream – this refers to the main prisoner body and tends to be the distinction between this population and prisoners in “Protection”
  • Protection – some prisoners need to be isolated (in protection units) from the main prisoner population (e.g., anyone on remand for a sex crime against a child, anyone known to have given information to police, certain people with an intellectual disability)
  • Protection from Protection – some prisoners that have worked in prisons, former police, certain high-profile identities require a further level of segregation – this usually only occurs at Barwon prison.
  • Management – Prisoners who have committed an offence or are deemed too difficult to manage in the mainstream population can be placed in management. These cells are usually segregated from the mainstream population and have a more rigid routine with fewer privileges.

Drug treatment in prison:

Drug use is prohibited in all prisons. Although there has been a reduction in ‘rampant’ use seen in the 1980’s, drug use is still common in prisons. One of the biggest dangers is the poor hygiene from unsafe injecting practices – e.g. multiple use of one blunt, shared syringe. Bleach is available to clean equipment and to combat the spread of blood borne viruses. Also abuse of prescribed medication is common, with prisoners getting it from others, either voluntarily or through stand-over tactics. At times, prisoners store medication under their tongue, secrete it onto their T-shirt to dry and use later, or vomit it up. All prisons (except Beechworth and Dhurringile) have drug and alcohol treatment provided as a result of the Victoria Prison Drug Strategy, details of which are available on the Department of Justice website.

Identified Drug User (IDU):

The IDU program is used to identify prisoners who are using or dealing drugs, and aims to reduce the amount of drugs in prison as well as reduce rates of drug use within the prison. A prisoner will receive an IDU if they test positive to a urine drug test, fail to submit a urine sample or are trafficking drugs within or into prison.

After receiving an IDU status, prisoners undergo a review process by drug and alcohol treatment providers, where they are offered support and treatment options. Prisoners will also receive sanctions according to the severity of their offence (e.g. fines, loss of contact visitation privileges).

Prisoners may be offered entry into the Drug-Free Incentive Program (DFIP), which is designed to motivate prisoners to reduce or stop their drug and alcohol consumption. In this program, prisoners must regularly provide ‘clean’ urine samples – which allows them to reduce their time without contact visits. Eligibility to this program is dependent on the category of the offence.

Trauma and pathology amongst prison populations:

It is widely accepted that the prisoner population has an over representation of psychosocial difficulties:

  • Trauma
  • Neglect/abuse
  • Domestic violence
  • Drug and alcohol problems
  • Mental health difficulties
  • High risk of suicide/self-harm

Additionally, there is an elevated presence of diagnosed and undiagnosed pathology in this population, such as:

  • ADHD
  • Conduct/“Oppositional defiant”
  • PTSD
  • Major Depressive Illness
  • Anxiety
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Psychopathy
  • Anti-social personality disorder
  • Borderline personality disorder

Understanding the Prison Experience

Daily life in prison:

Prison is a highly structured and controlled environment, with much of daily life scheduled and tightly controlled. Days involve scheduled meal and work times, as well as time for other activities.

  • Paid employment (e.g. kitchen work, laundry, industries, painting, farm work, cleaning etc.). Depending on the work done, earnings vary from $6.25 to $8.50 per day. Family members can put in additional money to buy things, although prisoners must be complying with prison procedure to have these requests granted.
  • Access to services (e.g. dentist, doctor, treatment programs etc.). Treatment programs include drug/alcohol, mental health, violence intervention, sex offending intervention and emotion management programs.
  • Visitation – If a prisoner tests positive to drugs, fails to produce a urine sample or has received a punishment, they may have non-contact visits for up to a year. Some prisoners can access ‘special visits’ where they can cook food, watch TV, or spend the night with family – allowing them to spend more time with their family in an environment which is more like home.
  • Activities – physical training, running, football matches, pottery, art, etc.
  • Canteen – pivotal part of prison life, prisoners can buy items such as snacks.
  • ‘Muster’ is the process by which prisoners are counted and welfare checks are done. This process occurs multiple times throughout the day.
  • Lock downs involve the cessation of all movement, programs, industry etc. This occurs at night, following an incorrect muster, prisoner unrest, escape attempt, strike action or cell searches.
  • Smoking has been banned within prisons since 2015.

Impacts of prison:

Time spent in prison can have wide ranging sets of challenges on individuals. Life in prison can impact prisoners in a range of different ways, with some able to cope well with these challenges while others are more severely affected. When working with forensic clients, it is important to be aware of the challenges and experiences they may have faced while in prison, and the potentially lasting effects. Some of the difficulties prisoners may face while in prison include:

  • Family breakdowns
  • Loneliness and fear
  • Mental health difficulties (e.g. depression, anxiety)
  • Risk of suicide
  • Institutionalisation (i.e. the adaptation to imprisonment)
  • Social withdrawal/isolation
  • Psychological impacts (e.g. hypervigilance, interpersonal distrust, suspicion towards others)
  • Adverse effects on health (i.e. chronic stress may exacerbate chronic health conditions)
  • Reduced sense of self-worth
  • Loss of autonomy

To hear firsthand experiences of life in prison and further understand the impacts of prison on individuals, watch the videos linked below.

Life after prison:

Release from prison and reintegration into normal life can be a daunting and stressful process. It is often a time of considerable anxiety and adjustment. The fast paced and unstructured nature of society can be overwhelming, particularly for institutionalised prisoners. Don’t assume that release is a happy experience for everyone!

There are many risk factors for offenders being released:

  • Reunion with family and having to re-build relationships
  • Kids/noise/mess/demands
  • Homelessness
  • Debt/finance issues
  • Drugs and alcohol
  • Avoiding crime associates
  • Mental health difficulties
  • Isolation/loneliness/exposure/anxiety
  • Parole conditions
  • Institutionalisation (dependence on prison systems/rules)
  • Employment
  • Community attitudes

For more information on understanding the prison experience, have a look at the videos under Further Reading and Resources. 

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