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Women and Mentoring in the Justice system

Women in prisons in Australia often come from backgrounds of disadvantage. Women and Mentoring (WAM) seeks to address these imbalances by offering an early, unique intervention program in Victoria that supports women and those who identify as women, when they have had contact with the justice system. WAM supports women by matching them individually with an understanding mentor. 

The mentors offer non-judgmental support, are willing to listen, offer their time and commitment and to walk that journey with her as she navigates the justice system. The WAM mentors’ range in age from 22-75 years, varying from students to retirees to those who have flexibility in their day. The mentors care about the vulnerable in the community to show compassion and support. 

Tricia Ciampa, Executive Officer of WAM, says the organisation also aims to “raise awareness on changing attitudes to incarceration, from ‘if you do the crime, you do the time’ to changing the mindset that communities become safer by locking people up.”

Tricia reinforces that there are more women on remand than serving a custodial sentence in prison. When in remand, a woman can lose her children, housing and Centrelink payments and often women get more time on remand than what they would have served in a jail sentence.

“When she is in remand, there is very little access to rehabilitation services. The damage has been done. With bail, she can continue to remain in her community, access professional support services, care for her children and go to her job.” Tricia said. 

Tricia Ciampa, Executive Officer at WAM, says putting in supports for women earlier will have better outcomes.

Whilst women only make up 7% of Australia’s prison population, female prisoners are the fastest-growing prison population (the female adult population increased by 64% between 2009-19). Comparatively, the adult male prison population increased by 45% and the global female prison population increased by 53% between 2000-16.

Of Australia’s female prisoners:

  • 17% had completed Year 12 compared with 71% of women in Australia. 
  • 24% unemployment before prison entry compared with 5.2% of unemployment for women in Australia, and 
  • 7% were sleeping rough before prison entry compared with 0.035% sleeping rough nationally.

WAM’s referral data show that women in the justice system are disproportionately victims of family violence (88% of referrals have experienced current or historical family violence), sexual abuse, and trauma. Further, 95% of women referred are diagnosed with one or more mental health issues, and 42% report problematic drug or alcohol use. Tricia says it is often these challenges that create barriers to engaging productively with support services.

A woman’s goals in the program can include support with: social isolation, reunification with children, being a first time parent, accessing rehabilitation for substance abuse, training for work, reparation with family members, and/or addressing previous trauma. A WAM coordinator meets with a mentor and woman at set periods to review how the match is developing and the progression towards her goals.

WAM also offers individual mentoring to a Young Women’s Program, for young women 12-24 who are at risk of becoming entrenched in the criminal justice system. In addition, there is a Lived Experience Peer Group, for women who have finished the regular mentoring program and now advocate and provide insights to other women, skilling the group up along the way. 

Often women will request a mentor with a sense of humour, who they can open up to and where they will not feel judged.

Olivia, a participant at WAM, was referred through her Parole Officer, and mainly wanted emotional support as she transitioned from parole to life after prison. She has been meeting her mentor weekly for ten months. 

Olivia says the support “has boosted my social confidence which had really decreased while I was in prison. I enjoy and look forward to seeing my mentor each week and talking through what has been going on in my life and she always listens and responds respectively without judgment and in a very supportive nature. 

She offers advice and helps out with finding the information I may need or require. I have since gone back to work, got my driver’s licence back, no longer have child protection involved and generally feel like my life is back on track and I am in a fantastic place mentally and emotionally.” 

Julie, Olivia’s mentor, says: “Olivia has really grown, and become more independent, with belief in their own ability and decision-making. She has become much more confident especially socially confident.” 

“Most of the time I’m really surprised by what Olivia has gained as I don’t feel that I have necessarily done that much. I think it is just committing the time each week and being someone that they can bounce things off, ask for support, share experiences with and spend some time with. I was the first person Olivia called when she got her Driver’s licence back!” Julie said.  

Mentors often fill a gap where the woman is estranged from family or have a diminished friendship group after prison.

Olivia says: “I now feel ready to help others in difficult situations and I believe my lived experience can help with the difficulties they may be facing.”

Olivia says when she thinks of WAM, she thinks of strong, supportive women. 

Julie agrees: “It’s a community of strong women who work together in their community, providing ideas and strategies to each other”.

To access support from WAM, inquire about being a mentor, find out further information or to donate, please click here.

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Suresh  Ruberan

Suresh Ruberan is a youth worker and is studying a Master of Social Work. He is passionate about social justice and working towards equity for the vulnerable and/or oppressed. He believes in a care-based society that offers time and care to human and non-human animals is essential for the well-being of the world.

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