Deportees: Taken from the brink

Reintegrating back into life after an extended period of time in prison is always rife with complications, regardless of the circumstances around release. For people originally from New Zealand who end up in the Australian prison system, deportation adds a whole other level of upheaval to this process. Many of these people have been living in Australia for most of their lives – all of their adulthood and much of their childhood, too.

The issue is further complicated for prisoners who have mental health issues, who make up a fairly substantial section of the prison population. According to statistics from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 46% of released prisoners have some form of mental health issue - and approximately a quarter of prison entrants are referred to mental health services. Figures from New Zealand are not dissimilar - with a 2005 survey showing 21% of all prisoners had suicidal thoughts at some point.

Thrown into the unknown

Among the deportees that PARS (People At Risk Solutions) have supported in recent times is Leah. Leah is 39. She moved to Australia with her family when she was 11, meaning that it had been her home for 28 years. She and her family did not realise that her time in prison would conclude with her being deported to New Zealand. "My family had a room ready for me to come back to and everything."

She found out that she was going to be deported two weeks before her release. What should have been a time of readjustment and family support turned quickly into something very different. "It was horrific. It was very traumatising."

Leah suffers from a variety of mental health problems, including severe depression and anxiety. She is upfront about how the situation affected her, and how serious the effects of both prison and deportation were on her already fragile mental health. "Throughout my time in prison I was bullied and pushed around. It was terrible. There was one other woman in my area, and she wouldn't come near me." If PARS had not gotten involved when they did, Leah says, "I could have taken my life".

A gentler readjustment

Coming back to New Zealand meant coming back to nobody, and no support - as far as Leah was aware. She had difficulty getting help from her first few case workers - but struck it lucky with her fourth one, who put her onto PARS. "I had my first contact over the phone. Rachael was gentle-natured with a lovely spirit. I felt safe with her."

Things started to fall into place as PARS helped Leah through her paces. "They took me to the bank, to WINZ - they took me shopping and drove me around." A particularly important moment for Leah was when she was taken on a marae visit by the Pae Arahi of PARS. "It was very beautiful. He said a prayer for me on the sacred ground. It meant I felt I had something to look forward to in New Zealand, that I could learn more about Maori culture and language, even though I'm pakeha."

Dealing with difficulties

There will always be some obstacles in readjusting to life outside prison and in a country that is dictated as being where you belong, even if you don't feel the same way. "I worked very hard for two months looking for accommodation - getting dressed up, talking to agents. I had to learn to take charge, to put myself out there."

The help that PARS provided in learning these skills is something Leah is especially thankful for. "They taught me about real estate agents, and how to do the paperwork." This meant that Leah could get out there by herself, rather than depending on the presence of a PARS worker, and helped her establish herself as her own person, rather than just as a former prisoner.

Leah is now in a home with a 12-month lease. She is still adjusting to issues such as dealing with Work and Income and managing her depression and anxiety. But considering the rollercoaster that she has been through since finding out that she wouldn't be going home to her family, she has been doing remarkably well - which is a testament both to her own personal strength and the role that PARS have played in her readjustment.

*not her real name