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Unlocking strength: a survival guide for women in prison

Sydney Community Foundation’s Sub Fund, The Keeping Women Out of Prison Coalition (KWOOP) is supporting the development of an innovative digital resource that aims to help women navigate the journey from Arrest to Release, minimise the negative impacts of incarceration and reduce recidivism.

For the hundreds of women entering and exiting the New South Wales justice system every year, prison is a frightening and bewildering experience.

Arrest 2 Release is the brainchild of former inmate Belle Walker, Advocacy and Development Officer for the KWOOP Coalition. For the past 18 months she has collaborated with pro-bono UX designer Frances Miller on content planning for the resource following hundreds of hours of consultation with women with lived experience of the justice system, and the people and organisations that support them.

“This information-rich resource aims to guide women through the journey from arrest to release like a friend who has been there before, sitting by their side,” Belle says.

“I kept a diary every day while I was in prison – my thoughts, things that happened and people’s stories. I had no idea what was going on most of the time, but I believe what happened to me was for a reason and I don’t want anyone else to go through the same experience.”

Upon her release from prison, Belle found it hard to get the support she needed to re-adjust to life. In her search, she met, inspired, and was inspired by KWOOP’s Founder, the late Rosalind Strong AM and from there volunteer work on the project commenced.

Belle collaborated with Eleni Psillakis, Executive Officer of Success Works, and Frances, to formulate a plan for presentation to the NSW Department of Communities and Justice to attract approval and support.

The website, now with seed funding to commence its initial development from NSW Corrections, will contain 10 modules and covers everything from going through the court process to understanding bail and what to expect upon release from prison.

Sliding door moments

Arrest 2 Release’s vision is to provide ‘sliding door moments’ that prompt women to take a step towards a positive outcome. This could be in the form of a tip, information or advice that can explain how not to break bail, how to talk to their children about what’s happening or getting a letter of support that might reduce their sentence.

“The project aims to alleviate fear and uncertainty, provide a sense of control, lessen the negative impact that can flow on to family, relationships, and help level the playing field for disadvantaged and marginalised members of our community,” Frances says.

“It’s based on the lived experience of women who have been through the system and feels like ‘a wise friend sitting next to you’ – warm, practical, non-judgemental and trustworthy.”

The website pilot targets three of the 10 stages from arrest to release. While funding is on the table for the first three modules of the resource from the NSW Government, further philanthropic support is needed for the remaining seven.

Reducing incarceration rates

Thousands of pro bono hours have been spent listening to and working with women with lived experience and creating and designing the resource and many more are required.

“To get this right, the resource needs to reflect the real experiences of women and be easily understood and digested. It cannot take a top-down approach, it needs to be trustworthy and real to be useful,” Belle says.

“The number of women going to prison grew by 60 per cent in the decade prior to COVID and is starting to increase again”, says Eileen Baldry AO, Professor of Criminology at UNSW Sydney.

A staggering 37 per cent of women in prison are Indigenous women, versus three per cent of the general population, with Indigenous women twenty times more likely than non-Indigenous women to be incarcerated, she adds.

Research shows up to three quarters of women in prison are living with an acquired brain injury and two thirds have a diagnosed mental illness. These and other contributing factors are often things people have little or no control over. These women do not necessarily belong in prison, there is just nowhere else for them to go.

The goal is for the website to be available across Greater Sydney and New South Wales so women can access it on tablets made available to them while they are in prison.

“Prison is such an awful, prickly topic, as an inmate you feel so low and so ashamed. A lot of people are in there who have just made mistakes but really want to better themselves, why would we not want to give them a chance at fixing that?”, Belle says.

“We want this resource to reach as many people as possible.”

If you would like to donate to KWOOP to support the Arrest to Release program donate here.

All donations $2 and over are tax deductible.

Photograph – ABC News: Sean Tarek Goodwin

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