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Being in prison can be a preferable alternative to daily danger

By Hazel Renouf, Griffins Society Research Fellow

Street sex working women occupy a marginalised position within society. Levels of homelessness and substance misuse are high and contact with the criminal justice system, including periods of imprisonment, are common. As a front-line practitioner, I’ve learnt that for this group, leaving prison is particularly challenging given the complexity of their needs.

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The Griffins Society Research Fellowship Programme has provided me with the opportunity to explore the lived experiences of resettlement for these women alongside the views of professionals from community-based projects who have supported this group. The findings of my study, just published, highlight that street sex working women have multiple and complex needs that inevitably impact on the process of resettlement and their transitions from custody to the community. Intensive, flexible and needs-led support is required throughout.

Leaving prison homeless increases the likelihood of reoffending and returning to sex work. Risks were rarely accounted for when assessing the needs of this group prior to their release from prison, despite the extremely high levels of violence they experience. My findings evidence the trauma present in the lives of street sex working women and the way in which drugs and alcohol are used as a means of coping with the ongoing effect of these experiences. Re-traumatisation also occurs through ongoing abuse and involvement in street sex work.

Therapeutic support should be made available to women throughout the resettlement process, given the interrelationship between trauma, substance misuse, street sex work and crime. For some participants, being in prison was seen to be a preferable alternative to living with the dangers they faced on a daily basis in the community.

My research demonstrates that the issues facing street sex working women are not always understood and that services are not designed to meet their needs. Without adequate support in place to meet their resettlement needs, there is an increased likelihood of women returning to street sex work, drug use and crime after leaving prison.