Food insecurity affects households when a family member is in custody. Sometimes the person in custody is the sole earner of the household, leaving their partner and children in dire straits after incarceration. I was once contacted by a woman who is a New Zealand citizen. Her immigration status meant she received only a small payment from Centrelink – about $400 a fortnight. The woman had five dependent children and was unable to afford food for them. I was able to refer her to a local community organisation to receive regular food parcels.
The availability of emergency food aid is welcome but does little to address the long-term issue of food insecurity among families of NSW prisoners. Many services are unable to provide regular food parcels. Another woman who contacted CRC after her partner was remanded in custody lived in a regional town. This woman was on the Disability Support Pension. When her partner was taken into custody, her rent doubled and she was unable to afford food for herself. Many community services in her area were closed due to the Covid pandemic. A large charity provided one-off relief in the form of a food voucher but was unable to provide ongoing assistance. There are approximately 12,000 prisoners in NSW, most of them men, leaving many women and children facing financial hardship leading to food insecurity.
Sometimes NSW prisoners face food insecurity. One woman serving a prison sentence spent months trying to get a special diet approved. The woman required a gluten free diet and was either given meals containing gluten, which she could not eat, or was given inadequate meals. The woman lost 11 kg in weight while waiting for approval for her special diet.
The ongoing food insecurity facing families of prisoners affects many children whose school participation can suffer. Parents, mostly mothers, bear a burden of stress during their partner’s incarceration that is an ‘invisible sentence’ affecting their mental health and wellbeing. The hardships faced by families can lead to generational disadvantage and a systemic approach to relieving food insecurity is vital to ensure this generational disadvantage does not become entrenched.
Written by Susan Hawkeswood for the RTF Coalition
Susan Hawkeswood is a Family Caseworker at Community Restorative Centre in Sydney, NSW.