The ACT Women And Prisons Group (WAP) operated from 2005 with the aim of highlighting the issues for women prisoners—a largely invisible group. As a not for profit community group their members included ex-prisoners and prisoners incarcerated or involved in the ACT criminal justice system, representatives of various ACT Women’s Services and other interested stakeholders.
WAP aimed to advocate with, and educate, the prison system and other stakeholders about gender sensitive and equitable access for women prisoners.
WAP used peer support by women with lived experience as a vehicle to build relationships and trust with women in and exiting from prison so that they can better provide personal and emotional support, hear the women’s views and stories and use these to advocate on their behalf. The Group also provided opportunities and support for women with lived experience to actively contribute to WAP’s work.
WCHM supported WAP over many years to grow its membership and to build its capacity. WCHM provided WAP with office support and capacity development assistance including:
- Assisting with defining its objectives and goals
- Assisting with defining useful models for the group to adopt in undertaking its activities
- Mentoring and coaching on meeting procedures, governance, operational policy and procedure development
- Providing support to write letters, participate in consultations, advocate with Government and service providers and develop submissions
- Facilitating an email list for the group to share information
In 2010, WCHM was successful in seeking funding for WAP to provide opportunities for members with lived experience of prison to participate in strategic planning activities aimed at supporting the development of their skills and to enhance their organisational capacity.
With the help of a professional facilitator, WAP members reviewed the organisation’s progress, agreed on short term and long term priorities, and considered organisational models to enhance their capacity to influence policy and practice in the ACT. The results of these discussions were used to develop a WAP strategic framework document and a submission for the ACT Budget.
WAP provided regular peer support to the women in the AMC and collected data about the issues faced by women prisoners which it uses in its advocacy work. To communicate this information to members and key stakeholders, WAP hosted quarterly meetings. These meetings also served as a forum for discussion on developments in the ACT and strategies to improve the system of support for women in, and exiting from, prison. The issues discussed included access to health and mental health services, access to training and education, access to visits from family, the complaints mechanisms available, and the transition for women from prison.
With the support of funding secured by WCHM from the ACT Office for Women, WAP members with lived experience also travelled to Sydney in August 2011 to attend the biannual Sisters Inside 6th International Conference. Sisters Inside is a high profile organisation based in Queensland that advocates for the human rights of women prisoners. At the conference WAP members were able to learn from, and share with, other community organisations, individuals, and government representatives working in the sector. Their presence at the conference enhanced WAP’s profile and facilitated linkages that will benefit WAP as it moves towards self-sufficiency. WAP members reported back about the conference to the wider WAP group and key stakeholders at their quarterly meeting.
In 2013, with funding from an ACT Health Promotion grant, WCHM assisted WAP to further develop and refine its organisational framework to professionalise the peer support it provides to women in the criminal justice system. Having a more rigorous, evidence-based peer support model in place ensured that WAP was better placed to meet the mental health and wellbeing needs of women involved in the ACT criminal justice system. The funding also assisted WAP to increase its organisational capacity through strategic planning, reviewing key organisational documents, and by establishing itself as a leader in peer support practice for women involved in the criminal justice system.
In that same year, WCHM was successful in obtaining an ACT Women’s Grant that enabled the WAP Group to develop a project to further its role as a community educator and advisory body. The project, Raising the Bar, involved developing and delivering an awareness training program aimed at ACT Government policymakers, health workers, and community service deliverers. The training modules were developed by WAP members with the assistance of Learning Options, and input from key stakeholders including member organisations of the ACT Women’s Services Network. Raising the Bar aimed to support participants to have a positive working relationship with women clients who are in the criminal justice system; provided them with the tools to better meet the health and wellbeing needs of women in the criminal justice system; and ultimately to make a difference to the lives of women in need of rehabilitation and support throughout the incarceration period and their release back into the community.