If I Ruled the World: Kat Armstrong

If I ruled the world every woman would have their human rights and differences respected to ensure her unique personhood was recognised and she could live safely.

Every woman would feel secure in a responsive, non-judgmental community with access to education and training. This would entail women not being imprisoned for drug addiction, having a mental illness, or both, or for being poor or homeless; a world where instead of losing their children to the state when imprisoned, women would stay in their community, together with their children and receive social support regardless of who they are or what their background is.

If I ruled the world, the criminal justice system and how women become embroiled in this system would change.

Society is always going to have tensions and conflicts amongst individuals, and have wealthy and poor, stable and unstable, healthy and sick, but it is how we support those people in our community who are less fortunate that makes a good society.

Although we live in a democracy, how does our democracy assist a woman who has been criminalised for being a victim of domestic violence or sexual assault? Is she included in making the very policies and procedures that ultimately will affect her?

The majority of women in the criminal justice system (CJS) are victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. Not knowing how to deal with this trauma and sometimes not even telling another living soul about what has happened to them for fear of being shamed or not being believed, most women start to self-medicate and ultimately becoming addicted to alcohol, drugs, gambling or something else to “block” out the issue. Committing crimes to feed the addiction, many women are soon in the CJS, convicted for non-violent crimes.

All women who go to prison get released back into our community, most in a relatively short amount of time. That term in prison is damaging to the woman, her children (if she is a mother), her family and ultimately the rest of the community. She does not get out a “changed” or reformed” person and nor does imprisoning her make our community safer.

Instead most women are released into homelessness, poverty and with very limited or no social support. Whatever addiction, medical or psychological condition she may have had upon entry to prison is exacerbated. If she is a mother, usually she will have lost her children. Is it little wonder the recidivism rate for women in NSW is high.

One year’s imprisonment costs the state government approximately $78 000, not including the cost of children going into care. For a fraction of this amount women could stay safely in the community, each with a social support plan. Such a plan would include AOD treatment if required, counselling for trauma and victimisation, parenting classes and supported child care, education and training, job skills and sharing. These women need never be socially excluded again.

An example of a socially supportive network assisting women caught in the CJS to help them stay in the community is the Women in Prison Advocacy Network, (WIPAN). With extensive social support and assistance from like-minded people, I founded this not for profit organization in 2008. Upon my release from prison in 2003, I benefited from strong mentorship. By getting that socially inclusive support, I was able to overcome my drug addiction, mental health issues and low self esteem. I knew that if social support could work for me then it could work for others. After 3 years of operation, WIPAN is addressing the many issues facing criminalised women: systemically by advocating reform of the criminal justice system; individually by mentoring women ex-prisoners. WIPAN operates on the premise that by providing women with gender-responsive social support, recidivism rates and the number of women in prison will be reduced.

Like many community based organisations, WIPAN has operated on a minimal budget and limited resources (3 x 1 yearly, 1 off grants). It has had great success in assisting and supporting women to remain safely in our community. WIPAN’s future is now in jeopardy, as the current NSW Government is not providing further or recurrent funding and WIPAN may have to close.

So if I ruled the world, this kind of socially supportive network that assists and supports women to stay in the community with their children and families would remain operational. In fact if I ruled the world the majority of the money that is currently pumped into the prison system- some 1 billion dollars per year- would instead be put into supportive and early prevention services in our community. It is how we support and assist people with multiple and complex needs that matters.

Kat is the Director of the Women in Prison Advocacy Network and an advocate for reform of the penal and criminal justice system.