Name: Annie Day
Student number: n7379412
Tutor: Colleen Niland

Prisoner wikipedia.jpgLizzieBeaDoreen OnTheInside.jpg
[Prisoner logo (Wikipedia, 2012); Lizzie, Bea and Doreen (On The Inside, 2012)]

Cultural Artefact

Prisoner (also known as ‘Prisoner: Cell Block H’ in the United Kingdom) was an Australian soap opera that ran for 692 episodes from 1979-1986, and followed the lives of the inmates and staff at the fictional Wentworth Detention Centre (On The Inside, 2012). It amassed a cult following, and still proves popular with repeated screenings (Foxtel, 2010). Whilst there were many characters throughout the series, three who proved particularly popular were Bea (Val Lehman), Lizzie (Sheila Florence) and Doreen (Colette Mann), who were prominent in the early years.

Public Health Issue

This artefact represents the public health issue of the social determinants of crime in Australia and the effect of imprisonment on criminals and society. Three of the most important determinants of crime are economic problems (Agnew et al., 2008), low education and persistent unemployment (Aaltonen et al., 2011), although a particular focus of this wiki post will be the effect of childhood maltreatment on future crime as it is represented in Prisoner by Doreen’s backstory.
The question of whether incarceration is of benefit to offenders, their families and society will be explored through a focus on the cycle of disadvantage and crime and the effects of parental incarceration on a child’s future offending and risk behaviours, as these relate to histories and storylines of Bea and Lizzie in Prisoner.

Literature Review

Cycle of disadvantage and crime

Multiple studies have found links between social determinants such as economic problems, unemployment and housing, and crime (Aaltonen et al., 2011; Agnew et al., 2008; Indig et al., 2010). Mick Dodson, in 1996, stated that “young people return from gaol to the very same conditions of daily existence that create the patterns of offending in the first place” (Krieg, 2006). By saying this, he was referring to the cycle of disadvantage and crime; people from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to commit crime, and prisoners are often released back into an environment of disadvantage, thus prompting them to reoffend.

A recent survey of 36 ex-prisoners in Australia found that the majority were “doing it tough”, with serious mental and physical health and substance-use problems, as well as having a poor financial situation, underemployment and variable, patchy social networks (Graffam & Shinkfield, 2012). It found that there was no improvement in the financial situations of the ex-prisoners over the post-release period, with a large number of them living below the Henderson Poverty Line. Many of the ex-prisoners’ underemployment was prolonged, with many working in casual employment rendering them ineligible for benefits, and/or had a heavy reliance on public assistance (Graffam & Shinkfield, 2012). Since the sample size of this survey was quite small, it is difficult to generalise from these findings; however, they still present a notable trend, especially as persistent unemployment has been found to be a robust predictor of crime (Aaltonen et al., 2011). The 2009 New South Wales Inmate Health Survey found that half the men and two thirds of the women in New South Wales prisons were unemployed in the 6 months prior to their incarceration, and 30% of the men and 44% of the women were unemployed for longer than 5 years (Indig et al., 2010). Since financial problems and persistent unemployment can be considered predictors of crime (Aaltonen et al., 2011), this is an issue as ex-prisoners may reoffend.

A study with a greater number of participants (356) was conducted by Baldry et al. (2002), and focussed particularly on housing. It was found that prisoners were among the poorest and most disadvantaged members of society in this regard. Of note were the findings that 25% of ex-prisoners relied on public housing (compared to 6% of the general population) and 18% were homeless (compared to less than 1% of the general population) (Baldry et al., 2002).

If conditions of poverty, un- or underemployment and poor housing lead to greater rates of crime, and prisoners are released into these conditions, they may be more likely to reoffend. As recidivism is approximately 60% (Quilty et al., 2004), this is an important issue as it implies that currently prisons are ineffective at reforming criminals, and need improvement so as to maintain a productive and healthy society.

Childhood Maltreatment

Childhood maltreatment can be conceptualised as either a determinant of crime or a mediating factor between disadvantage and crime. Currie & Tekin (2012) found that child maltreatment approximately doubles the probability that an individual will engage in crime; however, mediating factors such as education were not controlled for in their study. Since education is one of the most powerful predictors of future crime (Aaltonen et al., 2011), this limits the findings, although they still may indicate that child maltreatment is a determinant. Currie & Tekin’s study also found that sexual abuse has the largest effect on future crime and the probability of engaging in crime increases with the experience of multiple forms of maltreatment.

Going further back, Weatherburn & Lind (1998) looked into the role of parenting and peers as mediating factors between economic stress and crime, and found a strong relationship between factors such as poor parental supervision, inconsistent, harsh or erratic parental discipline and a weak parent-child bond and juvenile and adult involvement in crime (see below).
crime v neglect AIC.jpg
[Graph indicates relationship between childhood neglect and crime (Weatherburn & Lind, 1998)]

econ-delinquency path AIC.jpg
[Diagram showing different pathways to delinquency (Weatherburn & Lind, 1998)]

Further research has come from the Chicago Longitudinal Study, which had a sample size of 1539 people. Mersky et al. (2012) found that childhood and adolescent maltreatment was strongly associated with various forms of delinquent offending. Childhood maltreatment predicted offending regardless of adolescent maltreatment, and adolescent maltreatment was a strong predictor of juvenile outcomes (Mersky et al., 2012). Topitzes et al. (2011) studied gender in relation to childhood maltreatment, and found that for both genders childhood maltreatment significantly predicted adult arrest conviction. This may be mediated by factors such as low parental expectations and poor high school graduation rates. This research has various limitations, including underestimation of childhood maltreatment rates and missing data regarding mediators (Topitzes et al., 2011).

The general trend that emerges when reviewing the literature on this subject is that maltreatment in childhood may lead to crime later in life.

Parental Incarceration

Children with incarcerated parents are predominantly from backgrounds of socioeconomic adversity (Quilty et al., 2004), which makes it difficult to distinguish whether existing socioeconomic disadvantage increases the risk of incarceration or socioeconomic disadvantage is a result of incarceration (Kjellstrand & Eddy, 2011). Quilty et al. (2004) describe a chain of adversity whereby a child firstly experiences the trauma of witnessing a parent’s crime and arrest, then is disrupted psychosocially through the judicial and sentencing process, experiences social and demographic adversities and finally has their lives disrupted further when the parent is released and reintegrated into the family. This is one rationale for disadvantage existing as a result of incarceration.

Parental incarceration is a risk factor for multiple negative outcomes. Murray & Farrington (2008) found parental imprisonment to approximately treble the risk of child antisocial behaviour, as well as be a strong risk factor for adverse outcomes including violence, poor mental health, drug use, school failure and unemployment. Further to this, parental incarceration has been associated with negative child outcomes such as depression, aggression, delinquency, criminal behaviour and social exclusion, as well as potentially putting children at risk of academic difficulties (Johnson & Easterling, 2012). There are various mechanisms which link parental incarceration and future crime, including traumatic separation, economic and social strain, stigma (Murray & Farrington, 2008), economic and residential instability, disrupted caregiving relationships and diminished human capital (Johnson & Easterling, 2012).

The literature indicates on the whole that parental incarceration is a risk factor for crime, as well as other health problems, through multiple mechanisms.

Social and Cultural Analysis

There are a few theories which can be used to explain how society and culture can influence crime and its outcomes. Two which are particularly relevant to this issue are strain theories and social control theories. Strain theories explain what may drive someone to commit a crime (Johnson & Easterling, 2012), and help to explain the influence of economic disadvantage on crime. An early strain theory was Merton’s Anomie Theory (1938), which postulated that crime results when structural factors block people’s striving to fulfil cultural expectations of affluence (Aaltonen et al., 2011). From this eventually arose Agnew’s General Strain Theory which suggested that strain generates negative emotions such as anger and frustration, which create pressures for corrective action, with crime as a possible response (Brezina, 2010). This theory has moderate empirical support (Brezina, 2010). Thus, the link between economic problems and crime can be conceptualised as disadvantage causing strain, which leads to negative emotion, which leads to crime.

Social control theories assume that law-breaking is a natural part of human existence, and explains why crimes are not committed (Johnson & Easterling, 2012). They may assist in explaining the influence of parental incarceration and childhood maltreatment on crime in later life. Hirschi’s Social Bond Theory of 1969 stems from Durkheim’s thesis about the importance of social connections, and postulates that the stronger a person’s bonds and affiliations, the greater their stake in conformity (Johnson & Easterling, 2012). Parental incarceration and childhood maltreatment affect parent-child attachment, family functioning and parenting (Kjellstrand & Eddy, 2011), which would result in children who lack social bonds and are therefore less likely to conform. Whilst empirical support exists for the basic premise of Social Bond Theory, it is still being refined (Fox, 2008).

Social groups that may be affected by this issue are families, as dysfunction can harm social bonds, especially if the family is affected by parental imprisonment. Indigenous Australians, as a cultural group, are also particularly affected by crime and its determinants and outcomes. According to the 2009 New South Wales Inmate Health Survey, whilst Indigenous Australians represent 2% of the general population, they represent over 20% of the male prison population and 17% of the female prison population (Indig et al., 2010). This suggests that they are grossly over-represented in the court and prison systems, and therefore that people are not affected equally by the issues of disadvantage and crime.

As long as there is variance in class and income in Australia, some people will always be at more of a disadvantage, and therefore more likely to commit crime. This is an important public health issue, as incarceration can lead to negative health outcomes for prisoners and their families, which could be a partially preventable burden on the healthcare system.

Analysis of Artefact and Learning Reflections

Whilst Prisoner was a highly dramatised representation of the lives of prisoners in the 1970s and 1980s, it is still germane as it reflects current issues in relation to the social determinants of crime and the health of prisoners and their families. Looking at the characters of Lizzie, Doreen and Bea, this becomes evident. A storyline of Lizzie’s represents the cycle of disadvantage and crime; after being released from prison after 20 years, she is unable to cope with living outside Wentworth, which leads her to reoffend (Who’s Who in Wentworth, 2008). Doreen’s backstory represents the influence of childhood maltreatment on future crime, as she was molested by her father and subsequently turned to crime early (Who’s Who in Wentworth, 2008). Finally, a storyline involving Bea represents the negative impacts of parental incarceration, as whilst she is in prison her daughter dies of a drug overdose (Who’s Who in Wentworth, 2008). Each of these three popular characters (as well as numerous other characters) had stories associated with them which are true to life, making Prisoner all the more authentic and relevant.

As a result of this assessment piece, I have learnt that society can influence many things in ways of which I was not previously conscious. Actions such as committing crimes which I originally thought were largely determined by personal agency actually have complex determinants which are rooted in social and economic inequalities. In future I will be more likely to think critically about issues and consider the complexities of situations and how society may shape outcomes.

Reference List

Aaltonen, M., Kivivuori, J., & Martikainen, P. (2011). Social determinants of crime in a welfare state: Do they still matter?. Acta Sociologica, 54(2), 161-181. doi:10.1177/0001699311402228.

Agnew, R., Matthews, S. K., Bucher, J., Welcher, A. N., & Keyes, C. (2008). Socioeconomic status, economic problems, and delinquency. Youth & Society,40, 159-181. doi: 10.1177/0044118X08318119.

Baldry, E., McDonnell, D., Maplestone, P., & Peeters, M. (2002, May). Ex-prisoners and accommodation: What bearing do different forms of housing have on social reintegration of ex-prisoners?. Paper presented at the Housing, Crime and Stronger Communities Conference. Retrieved from

Brezina, T. (2010). Agnew, Robert: General Strain Theory. In F. T. Cullen & P. Wilcox (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Criminological Theory. doi: 10.4135/9781412959193.n3.

Currie, J., & Tekin, E. (2012). Understanding the cycle: Childhood maltreatment and future crime. Journal of Human Resources, 47(2), 509-549.

Fox, K. (2008). Social bond theory. In V. Parrillo (Ed.), Encyclopedia of social problems. (pp. 861-862). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc. doi: 10.4135/9781412963930.n522.

Foxtel. (2010). Prisoner. Retrieved from

Graffam, J., & Shinkfield, A. J. (2012). The life conditions of Australian ex-prisoners: An analysis of intrapersonal, subsistence, and support conditions. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 56(6), 897-916. doi: 10.1177/0306624X11415510.

Indig, D., Topp, L., Ross, B., Mamoon, H., Border, B., Kumar, S., & McNamara, M. (2010). 2009 NSW Inmate Health Survey: Key Findings Report. Sydney: Justice Health. Retrieved from

Johnson, E. I., & Easterling, B. (2012). Understanding unique effects of parental incarceration on children: Challenges, progress, and recommendations. Journal of Marriage and Family, 74, 342-356. doi: 10.1111/j.1741-3737.2012.00957.x.

Kjellstrand, J. M., & Eddy, J. M. (2011). Parental incarceration during childhood, family context, and youth problem behaviour across adolescence. Journal of Offender Rehabilitation, 50(1), 18-36. doi: 10.1080/10509674.2011.536720.

Krieg, A. S. (2006). Aboriginal incarceration: health and social impacts. Medical Journal of Australia, 184(10), 534-536. Retrieved from

Mersky, J. P., Topitzes, J., & Reynolds, A. J. (2012). Unsafe at any age: Linking childhood and adolescent maltreatment to delinquency and crime. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 49(2), 295-318. doi: 10.1177/0022427811415284.

Murray, J., & Farrington, D. P. (2008). The effects of parental imprisonment on children. Crime and Justice, 37(1), 133-206. doi: 10.1086/520070.

On The Inside. (2012). Prisoner: Cell Block H. Retrieved from

Quilty, S., Levy, M. H., Howard, K., Barratt, A., & Butler, T. (2004). Children of prisoners: A growing public health problem. Australian and New Zealend Journal of Public Health, 28(4), 339-343. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-842X.2004.tb00441.x.

Topitzes, J., Mersky, J. P., & Reynolds, A. J. (2011). Child maltreatment and offending behaviour: Gender-specific effects and pathways. Criminal Justice and Behaviour, 38(5), 492-510. doi: 10.1177/0093854811398578.

Weatherburn, D., & Lind, B. (1998). Poverty, Parenting, Peers and Crime-Prone Neighbourhoods. Australian Institute of Criminology trends & issues, 85. Retrieved from

Who’s Who in Wentworth. (2008). Retrieved from

Wikipedia. (2012). Prisoner (TV Series). Retrieved from