Empowering Women Behind Bars

Rebecca Wong talks with Kat Armstrong, founder of the Women in Prison Advocacy Network

Rebecca Wong talks with Kat Armstrong, founder of the Women in Prison Advocacy Network

HS: Can you tell me a bit about yourself and how you became involved in women’s advocacy?

KA: I spent 10 years myself in prison, and whilst I was in prison I saw many injustices occurring to and around the women. I wanted to start an organisation that actually advocated and supported to empower women, to become the best that they could be. I came from a very dysfunctional family. I had very young parents, my mother was 17 when she gave birth to me and my father was 19, and they already had my sister who was 18 months older than me, so babies having babies. My father was a Vietnam veteran, and so for the first few years of my life he was away at war. He was conscripted, so he had no choice. When my father got back from Vietnam, we moved to Newcastle. For the first say 10-11 years of my life, it was filled with domestic violence, alcohol addiction, and abuse. And then my parents separated when I was 11 or 12, and I moved in with my mother and left my father. By the time I was 15-16, I began to self-medicate on illegal substances—marijuana, speed, and then heroin, and by the time I was 17-18, I was addicted to heroin, because I hadn’t had the support, counselling or nurturing as to my dysfunctional upbringing. I ended up in the CJS as a 19-year-old single mother with a 1-year-old daughter.

HS: Obviously you were failed by the police and by the government, do you think there was anything they could have done to intervene in your family situation?

KA: Back then, domestic violence was a very not talked about incident. And police weren’t trained to respond and/or deal with it correctly. And so a lot of the time, when they’d come, they’d take my mother to one side and my father to the other side, and my dad would assure them that “yeah it’s alright, we can sort it out”, and then they’d take his word on that and leave. So yes, I do think the police failed my mother and us children. DOCS were never called, they were never involved, and I think it came down to basically lack of training. And some of those police themselves having the very same attitudes of my father that ‘oh if your wife lies or doesn’t do the right thing, she should get a slap up the side of the head’.

HS: What kinds of injustices did you see in prison?

KA: Things like giving a woman a direct order to do a strip search, her refusing to do that strip search because she’s either menstruating or she feels uncomfortable because she’s a victim of sexual assault, and then her being given what’s called a direct order that “if you don’t do this strip search you will be charged” with an internal gaol charge and her still saying ‘no, I do not want to do this’, and then officers holding her down and ripping her clothes off her anyway. Or women being told that a video camera is going to be used for a further correctional centre officers’ training in this procedure. And so you have 10 or 11 women standing in a line, fully naked, with a video camera going up behind those women, some of those women being asked to spread their legs, and the video camera getting down and shooting up at the woman’s vagina. And the women, before that occurring, were asked to sign a consent form, but without the details of what would actually occur in practice. And also with underlying threats which of course were not written in the consent form, that if you didn’t participate in this, this could affect your classification of getting into a lower security prison.

HS: If there are female prison guards, do you think that’s less likely to happen?

KA: Absolutely not. So back in the late 80s early 90s, it was predominantly women officers, with maybe a quarter or a fifth men officers. Today, it’s sometimes 60-40 men to women, so regardless whether those are men or female officers, depending on the culture, and the values and judgment of those officers, it’s irrespective of gender.

HS: Is that a cultural thing, or is it individuals who abuse their power over others?

KA: The reality is the majority of officers in correctional services, and particularly long term ones, after seeing so many of the same people come in and out, come in and out, they form a major judgment and bias—they just believe this person is just a hopeless druggy. “Oh Kat you’ve been in jail 3 times now, you’re a habitual criminal you’re a serial recidivist, you’re an addict, and you’ll either die or keep coming back in for the rest of your life—I couldn’t tell you how many times I was told that. But then there were other officers who then took me aside when I started my law degree, and were just like “Well done, good on you”.

HS: are there ways in which women’s experiences of prison differ from men’s?

KA: The biggest one is this. 60-70% of women who go to prison are mothers, primary caregivers for their children. And 50% of those women are not even convicted of an offence, but they’re refused bail. They lose their children, who quite often go into foster care, they lose their house, they lose all their belongings, and so the whole family unit breaks down. The majority of men that go to prison, have a wife or a girlfriend or a partner, who maintains the family home and the children, and visits them in prison every week.

HS: Do you think the prison system adequately supports women who wish to pursue education?

KA: When I was in prison, there was greater budgets for education and programs in prison, both for men and women. Over the last 12 years, those budgets have continually been reduced. As of April this year, there was not one woman in Silverwater Women’s Correctional Centre doing full-time education. If you want to do full-time education, your weekly wage is between $24-32 a week. If you choose to go and work in a corrective services industry, you can make up to $65. So given 95% of the women rely wholly and solely on their prison wage, there’s no way they are going to go and do full-time education.

HS: Are there skills that people don’t have or lose during their time in prison, that then makes it harder for them to adjust to life after coming out?

KA: You have no access to any money, no budgetting classes. You’re told when to get up, when to eat, you get locked in your cell at 3:30 in the afternoon, every prisoner except in minimum security. So you’re not empowered, you’re not given any responsibility whatsoever. So say you’ve been in there for 6 months, and you’ve lost your house, you’ve lost every piece of clothing, you’ve lost your children, and you get out with basically the clothes on your back that you were arrested in and little or no money, not knowing where you’re going to sleep that night, and to survive on a $296 crisis payment cheque that you get when you’re released plus two weeks, how can women possibly do that? No wonder it’s almost 50% of all women that are released return to prison within a 2 year period.

HS: What kind of work does WIPAN do?

KA: WIPAN was created in 2007-08 to advance the wellbeing and prospects of women affected by the criminal justice system. Our one on one mentoring service is where we recruit and train a variety and diverse aray of women from the community. We then match them to women either just arrested or sitting in prison or just released from prison to be mentored by these women, to walk beside them and guide them in whatever area of need or support they direct. And that can be helping getting her children restored, helping getting a house, helping getting into education that will one day enable her to become employed, helping her get volunteer work so that she’s got something on her CV to say that she’s had some practical experience in an area, helping her go to court and against a DV partner in AVO problems, helping with debt issues that women are often released with.

HS: Do political considerations play a big part in policy decisions?

KA: Absolutely. But the bottom line is that women are coming back to our community. The second bottom line is this—the cost effectiveness of incarcerating a woman and not rehabilitating her or addressing her drug and alcohol addiction or her trauma and just getting her out and she goes straight back to the drug and alcohol because she hasn’t got the employment, education and/or the counselling for the trauma as to why she started offending in the first place, then we will continue to have an unsafe community, and she will continue to commit crime, and therefore continue to cost taxpayers and the government far more money than what it would be if we stand beside her and empower her instead.