Would You Mentor a Female Prisoner?

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Women's Day

We have a problem in New South Wales – our female prison population has doubled over the past decade. Overcrowding in our correctional facilities is a major problem, along with the constant strain on our legal system.

The latest figures from the Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (BOCSAR) suggest there are 1,014 women in prison throughout the state. Sixty-one per cent are mothers, two-thirds are in prison for minor offences and many spend long periods behind bars waiting for their cases to be finalised in court.

Nearly half have been in prison before

The most common offences for which women are imprisoned are drug crimes and theft. Forty-six percent of those who are sent to prison have been there before.

But a mentoring initiative that has been running in New South Wales since 2008 is turning the last statistic on its head. By matching female inmates with members of the community who provide support, friendship, a listening ear, advice and promote self-belief, the programme is reported to have reduced recidivism by an incredible 93 per cent.

The Women’s Justice Network runs the programme. The organisation says that while the initiative is not cheap, it is cost effective – saving taxpayers millions in the costs of enforcement and imprisonment. While it costs almost $69,000 a year to house a woman in prison, it costs just $4,500 per inmate to run the programme.

Funding is desperately needed

Although the NSW Government is providing assistance for a pilot prevention program for teenage girls and mentorships for 50 adult women, more money is desperately needed.

One woman, Ally Colquitt, 33, a first-time offender, has just been released from prison after serving 14 months for supplying drugs. She had a year-long wait before her case was finalised in court.

She says of her circumstances: “I was an out-of-control alcoholic with non-existent coping mechanisms. I just woke up one morning in a cell and realised it had all gone very wrong.”

Six months into her prison sentence, Ally was matched with 23-year-old social work student Courtney Moon.

For the next eight months, Courtney wrote to Ally in prison. She visited and attended Ally’s court hearing. The women formed an unbreakable bond, which helped turn Ally’s life around. Other women inmates share similar success stories.

A paper produced by the group, Sisters Inside, for the Current Issues in Sentencing Conference last year details the issues facing female inmates, which include:

  • Poverty – with the majority being dependent on Centrelink benefits and most being in debt upon entering prison.
  • Housing insecurity – with many having been homeless immediately prior to imprisonment.
  • Unemployment or very low income jobs.
  • Poor educational outcomes – with most not having completed secondary education.
  • Poor health – with the majority experiencing mental health and/or substance abuse issues.
  • Backgrounds with institutional intervention – with more than half having been in state care as a child (and up to 25% having spent time in a juvenile detention centre).
  • Domestic Violence – with an alarmingly high number of women inmates having experience abuse by a partner, parent or family member.
  • A high proportion having intellectual or learning disabilities.

In this context, it is easy to understand why so many have ended up in prison. But the mentoring programme offers them a real opportunity for change.

As one successful participant says: “these are lost, broken-hearted people who need our help.”

If you’d like to help, you can find out more here.

Wishing everyone a Happy International Women’s Day.

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Sonia Hickey

Sonia Hickey is a freelance writer, magazine journalist, and owner of 'Woman with Words'. She has a strong interest in social justice and is a member of the Sydney Criminal Lawyers® content team. Sonia is the winner of the Mondaq Thought Leadership Awards, Spring 2022.

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