Post-release mentoring succeeds in everything but winning funding

Funding CCTV cameras annihilated a proposal in NSW to create a mentoring program directed at young women in prisons or undergoing release. AAP/Julian Smith

This article is part of the Beyond Prison series, which examines better ways to reduce re-offending, following the recent State of Imprisonment series.

In December 2013, federal Justice Minister Michael Keenan wrote to 151 community organisations to announce that the new Coalition government would not honour the projects that its Labor predecessor had approved under the National Crime Prevention Fund. The Women in Prison Advocacy Network (WIPAN) was among the organisations that were written to.

Keenan argued that these projects had not entered into a formal funding agreement. They would be replaced by the A$50 million plan for safer streets, which addressed:

… crime and anti-social behaviour by measures such as CCTV cameras and better lighting.

Funding the “CCTV cameras” effectively annihilated WIPAN’s proposal of creating a mentoring program directed at young women in prisons or undergoing release. This program was responding to the growing presence of young women in the NSW prison system and the disproportionate criminalisation of young Indigenous women.

The safer streets plan expands on “evidence and intelligence-led policing”. CCTV cameras become part of a network of security technologies that employ analysis and intelligence work to gather data and evidence on criminals.

This focus falls within risk-management police strategies posed as preventing crimes and recidivism by placing an emphasis on those identified as risky offenders. In doing so, it stands in opposition to WIPAN’s mentoring work.

WIPAN actively rejects the way that state and law enforcement agencies view some women as risky criminals. It specialises in addressing historical and current mechanisms that produce the “hyper-incarceration” of especially Indigenous women and those culturally differentiated as vulnerable through a mix of race, ethnicity, gender and sexuality, class and educational status, disability, mental and physical health.

WIPAN’s principal focus is on assisting women to transform the varied, complex social circumstances that have shaped their criminalisation. This acknowledges that these women, more often than not, have also been the subjects of crimes within and outside institutional settings. It aims to assist women in the criminal justice system to (self) determine forms of diversion from unhealthy practices, violent settings and relationships and, ultimately, re-imprisonment.

WIPAN emerged in 2007. It successfully ran its first gender-responsive mentoring program in 2009. The program pairs women in prison and after release with mentors recruited from the community who have been formally trained by TAFE and WIPAN. Maintaining non-judgemental, practical and emotional support and guidance drives the mentoring relationship.

Mentoring is especially focused on women transitioning to or already on release. One comparative study on the post-release experiences of women in Victoria and the UK confirms WIPAN’s own findings in NSW that this is a precarious moment. The risks are compounded by a lack of essential and relevant support.

These women are likely to have a range of difficulties in re-entering the community. These include:

  • finding services that support their diverse needs;

  • finding safe and non-violent accommodation;

  • dealing with risks of drug use;

  • re-establishing or cutting ties from family and community relations;

  • finding employment;

  • not resuming unhealthy friendships; and

  • re-uniting with children.

These findings show that women coming out of jail require forms of assistance that are not simply related to the surveillance technologies for prevention or elimination of recidivism, but rather that are focused on women’s health and well-being.

Therefore, WIPAN staff and mentors act as social contacts who follow up, advocate and provide ongoing everyday practical and emotional support. They collaborate in the advancement and “enhancement of the well-being of prisoners and ex-prisoners” by increasing their social capital. They support community reintegration by helping women to cope, to seek the support they need and to make autonomous decisions.

WIPAN’s pilot program, which ran from May 2010 to November 2011, indicated that even a short period of mentoring has a positive influence on the participants. Significantly, its emphasis on social support had meant that out of the 20 women who stayed in the program for more than two months, only one returned to prison.

While these women had previously been criminalised as “recidivists” and “serial recidivists”, WIPAN’s mentoring program successfully assisted them to exit criminalisation.

The Productivity Commission reported in 2010 that the total operating costs per prisoner are A$100,740 per year, or $276 per day. The pilot program run by WIPAN operated on a $100,000 annual budget. It assisted 19 women in not re-entering prison.

In 2015, WIPAN does not know if it will continue to be funded. The current government emphasis on funding security technologies robs WIPAN’s potential success in mentoring. And, most importantly, it robs women of quite possibly their best chance to exit criminalisation.

You can read other articles in the Beyond Prison series here.

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