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Speech: Women in Prison Advocacy Network

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 6 Feb 2013

Adjournment Speech: 5 February 2013

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (21:01):

Women in the criminal justice system have a tough time in prison and when they are released. Fortunately there is now an organisation dedicated to making a difference to the lives of these women. Women in Prison Advocacy Network or WIPAN is a voluntary grassroots organisation founded in 2007 by women, some of whom are former prisoners. The organisation has dedicated itself to advancing social justice for women who have been criminalised and marginalised, advocating for them within the prison system and supporting them on their release. There are gender specific issues that face women in the criminal justice system. Their needs are different from and often more complex than those of men, and often poorly addressed. In New South Wales women are entering prison at twice the rate of men. They experience more violence, substance dependency, mental and physical health disorders and chronic homelessness than men. They also have unique needs around raising their children.

WIPAN is working to reduce the rates at which these women reoffend. Over the years I have been impressed with the way WIPAN advocates for change within the criminal justice system and provides individual practical support and mentoring for women on their release from prison. The results are impressive. The number of women entering prison has been reduced and, importantly, WIPAN is achieving real and lasting life changes for the many disadvantaged and marginalised women in our criminal justice system.

WIPAN's work has been so successful that this organisation has been awarded the 2012 National Crime and Violence Prevention Award for outstanding work in crime prevention. One of the many practical and effective programs that WIPAN runs is an individual mentoring program for women leaving prison to help make the often difficult transition back into society. Former prisoners can face overwhelming issues when leaving prison: problems such as deep social isolation, destructive and sometimes violent or abusive relationships, returning to old patterns of addiction and substance abuse, through to practical issues such as regaining custody of children, debt management and finding suitable housing, training and employment. These factors, understandably, can lead to a high rate of recidivism.

From a one-off grant of $100,000 in 2010, WIPAN developed and ran the 18-month pilot mentoring program from May 2010 until November 2011. Under the pilot, WIPAN recruited and trained volunteers from the broader community as mentors and these were matched with 31 newly released prisoners as mentees. The resulting figures speak for themselves. The first woman to be matched with a mentor in 2010 is, as at August 2012, living a crime- and drug-free life. Of the 20 women who stayed in the program for two months or more, only one returned to prison. This woman represented a unique case. She had served nine previous custodial sentences with less than two months in the community in between. After mentoring, she did stay in the program for 14 months before reoffending and has since signed up to go back on the program. During the pilot period, 82 per cent of the women who stayed in the program for a year or more did not reoffend or return to prison. This is despite the fact that 93 per cent of those women were previous recidivists and in some cases serial recidivists.

According to the Productivity Commission, the total operating costs per prisoner in prison is over $100,000 a year. It is time that we made a reassessment of how we are managing prisoners in this country. Under the pilot program that WIPAN worked on the average cost of operation per woman per year was approximately $4,200. If it was successful in keeping just one woman out of prison for a year, then the total cost of the pilot mentoring scheme has been saved.

I would like to especially commend the initiative of WIPAN founding members Kat Armstrong, Carol Berry, Marissa Sandler and Nicki Petrou. Co-founder Kat Armstrong spent many years in prison for fraud and armed robbery. In prison Kat managed to turn her life around and began mentoring other women prisoners. She studied for a law degree, which she completed on release. Kat is currently employed full time and volunteers tirelessly as a director and treasurer of WIPAN. I do say thank you to Kat and all her colleagues for their tremendous achievement. I hope governments will look closely at this program, give it ongoing support and ensure that it is extended across the country. I am a proud member of Women in Prison

Advocacy Network and I encourage others to check out their work and consider joining. You can do that at wipan.net.au.

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