Many women in prison have experienced intimate partner violence (IPV). As this form of violence is often intergenerational and entrenched, women in prison are widely considered to be at particular risk of ongoing victimisation following release from custody. And yet, their support needs often go unrecognised, and it is likely that a range of barriers exists that prevent ex-prisoners from accessing services.
This research documents a series of interviews with both incarcerated women and service providers in one Australian jurisdiction to arrive at an understanding of help-seeking behaviour and how this might inform service responses. It is not concerned with advancing current understandings of why women come into contact with the justice system, although it is clear that services and programs that prevent IPV will contribute to reduced criminal justice involvement. The analysis is positioned within a review of current theories of how people seek help from both formal and informal sources and how these theories might apply to women in prison.
These theories suggest that any individual who experiences IPV must: 1) recognise and define the abusive situation as intolerable; 2) decide to disclose the abuse and seek help; and 3) select a target for the disclosure and where to subsequently seek help from. At the same time, the ability to seek help is influenced by a broad range of individual, interpersonal and socio-cultural factors. Socio-culturally, for example, IPV is often viewed through the lens of particular social, religious and cultural institutions where male–female power inequalities are reinforced. Figure 1 provides a summary of those factors that influence help-seeking at each stage of the process.
The interviews with women in prison clearly illustrated the need for service providers to offer support at each of these three stages; they also illustrated how the process of re-entering the community leaves many women who have been released from prison feeling insufficiently empowered to access help independently. The interviews with service providers highlight that although services are available to victims of IPV, they rarely provide the type of support required to engage ex-prisoners.
The research suggests there is much that can be done to prepare women for their eventual release back into the community and to support them in the period following release. Specialist safety services are needed to provide education and information about IPV, to assess the particular risks faced by women in prison, to broker service access with community agencies and to provide general support and advocacy. In short, a dedicated integrated response to community reintegration is indicated that can help to break the cycle of victimisation and incarceration that is characteristic of the lives of many women in Australian prisons.