Women leaving prison and the impacts of debt

The Women’s Policy Action Tank recently published a special issue of the Good Policy newsletter, exploring three areas of policy with a gender lens: women and the criminal justice system, Indigenous women, and women’s experience of employment. Each topic is explored using a dialectical approach, in which two authors approach a topic from a different angles. We will be publishing the paired articles on our blog over the coming three weeks. This week: Exploring the gendered impacts of incarceration on women. This article is a companion piece to The national tragedy of female incarceration, by Jacki Holland.

Professor Christopher Trotter, Department of Social Work, Monash University

Over the past several years my colleagues in the Monash Criminal Justice Research Consortium and I have undertaken a number of studies on women offenders. We examined the experiences of 129 women coming out of prison in Victoria in 2004, supported by Corrections Victoria, VACRO and the Australian Research Council.[1] We did a similar project examining the pathways for almost 100 women exiting prison in Victoria in 2011-2013 for Corrections Victoria,[2] and in 2016 we conducted a literature review on best practice with women offenders.[3] We have also produced two edited books[4] on this topic (with Rosemary Sheehan and Gill McIvor) and undertaken two conferences.

One of the reasons for our particular interest in women offenders at this time has been the growth in numbers of women entering the criminal justice system. The number of women in prison in Australia has grown by as much as 50 per cent in the past decade, reflecting a trend across western countries. Numbers of male prisoners have also grown, however, the proportion of women prisoners has been growing consistently for the past two decades. The reasons for this growth are difficult to determine, nevertheless it has led to an increasing interest in the causes of female offending and how it can be addressed.

In our most recent study we identified a number of issues which were related to women returning to prison. Women did better and were less likely to re-enter prison when they had shorter criminal histories, when they were older, when they were less drug-dependent, when they had children in their care following release, when they could access suitable housing, and when they made use of support programs and services including parole supervision. The women also did better if they were able to manage finances and tackle debt. Rather than discussing all of these issues in this short piece, I will focus on finances and debt as it is often an issue which gets little attention when women prisoners are discussed.

In our study, women who reported having debts when they came into prison had much higher rates of return to prison (32 per cent vs 17 per cent). Those who reported a gambling problem before they entered prison were also more likely to return (31 per cent vs 23 per cent). This is consistent with the limited research referred to in the literature review which suggests that debt may be an important factor in re-offending for women.

Figure 1: Self-reported issues experienced by women prior to imprisonment.* Note the high percentages with outstanding debts and reliant on government benefits prior to incarceration. From Sheehan et al. (2013), p. 3

Figure 1: Self-reported issues experienced by women prior to imprisonment.* Note the high percentages with outstanding debts and reliant on government benefits prior to incarceration. From Sheehan et al. (2013), p. 3

Our report, Women Exiting Prison in Victoria (2016), showed reliance on government benefits and outstanding debt to be highly prevalent factors for the majority of women prior to incarceration. Post-release, 85 per cent of study participants relied on government benefits for income, with a low uptake in paid work over the following year (only 4 women were working at the 12-month mark). Sixty per cent said debt remained a major issue, and 43 per cent said they were not managing financially.

To illuminate the financial difficulties, our report provided case studies on four women, two who returned to prison and two who did not by our 12-month follow-up interview. Jean did not have problems with her finances largely because when she came out of prison she went directly to live with an elderly relative. Social security benefits were sufficient for her to meet her needs without additional income. She was even about to get her driving licence and purchase a car. Toni had debts, but following her release, she was given assistance to go onto a payment plan for her debts. She said at the 12-month interview that her finances were fine and that “Gerry (her partner) is really good with money.”

Michelle, on the other hand, had rent and study debts, and was always borrowing money. Her “diet was horrible, I was living off cereal.” Leah also was not coping well with her finances when we first saw her after release and she did not think she could “ever pay off her debts.”

It is well established that poverty is a significant risk factor for women’s interaction with the criminal justice system, and it has been argued that addressing women’s financial exclusion can have a positive impact on reducing reoffending.[5] From our studies, it seems clear also that debt, often accumulated before prison, can provide a stumbling block for rehabilitation – and a significant challenge to resettlement in the community. It is certainly an issue that warrants greater attention by policymakers and service providers. Given the rates at which female prisoners and ex-prisoners report outstanding debts and financial difficulties, there is a strong argument for viewing debt management as a core area of intervention for imprisoned women.


[1] Trotter, C., McIvor, G. & Sheehan, R. (2012). The Effectiveness of Support and Rehabilitation Services for Women. Australian Social Work, 65:1, pp. 6-20.

[2] Sheehan, RJ, Flynn, CA, Trotter, C J & Naylor, BG (2016). Women Exiting Prison in Victoria: A Post-Release Study. Monash University Press, Melbourne, Australia. Available at http://www.corrections.vic.gov.au/utility/publications+manuals+and+statistics/women+exiting+prison+in+victoria

[3] Trotter, C & Flynn, C (2016). Literature review: Best practice with women offenders. Monash University Criminal Justice Research Consortium, Victoria, Australia.

[4] Sheehan, R., McIvor, G. & Trotter, C. (eds) (2010). Working with women offenders in the community. Willan Publishing, USA; Sheehan, RJ, McIvor, G. & Trotter, CJ (2007). What Works with Women Offenders. Willan Publishing, UK.

[5] Bath, C. & Edgarm, K. (2010). Time is money: financial responsibility after prison. http://prisonreformtrust.org.uk/uploads/documents/timeismoney.pdf