The project giving hope to mums behind bars

Imagine being locked up and losing all contact with your child. This is the harsh reality for many women in our jails… but a compassionate new scheme is changing all that.

It looks like a university campus – sprawling, industrial, brightly coloured walls. And then we get to one security gate, and then another. Daisy-Fau Tanuvasa, the principal corrections officer, chats alongside us, explaining the layout of Auckland Region Women’s Corrections Facility in Wiri, South Auckland. As we walk closer to the high security area, we can hear the women banging on the inside of their windows at us and it’s more than a little intimidating.

We’re starting off with the maximum security part of the prison; “these are the naughty ones”, Tanuvasa says calmly as our group – seven lawyers, a photographer and myself – all try our best to ignore the sound. Another security door takes us inside a reception area: the scary-looking door on the left takes you through to the accused section, where the women are awaiting their sentencing. The door on the right leads to the convicted section. We start with the door on the right.

Lawyer Stacey Shortall strolls in, says good morning, and waits as the announce-ment goes over the loudspeaker, letting the inmates know the Mothers Project, a team of volunteer lawyers who visit every month, are here to see them.

A large group of women slowly congregate around the lunchroom plastic tables, all dressed in a variety of grey sweatsuits and colourful sneakers. Shortall sets up chairs for the group of volunteer lawyers at the back of the room, on the other side of the tables from the inmates. She puts her own chair in between, a bridge between two apprehensive groups. Then she begins.

“Before we talk about what we are, let’s talk about what we’re not. We’re not working with corrections, or with CYF [Child, Youth and Family], or the cops. We’re a group of volunteer lawyers who are here to help you.”

She explains they’re here for the inmates who are mothers, who need help finding out where their kids are, or with any of the paperwork. They’re here to be an advocate for the mothers, an in-between link that can help smooth the often frayed dealings between CYF, family on the outside, or both.

Various members of the inmate group start to wander off as they realise this doesn’t concern them, but the ones who are left are listening intently, some visibly upset. Shortall offers the clincher in her closing statement: “We know the fact you’re inside doesn’t mean you’re not still a mother, and that you don’t want to be a good mother.”

When she finishes by asking if anyone has a question, one woman raises her hand. “Does this actually work?” The second question, from another woman. “I’ve just had a baby and it’s out there, since I’ve been in custody. Can you help me see her?”

Once the group questions are over, the collective slowly pairs off, one inmate to one lawyer. Three of the women wipe tears from their faces as they talk about their children. The photographer Emily and I stand awkwardly to one side, unhelpful in this increasingly intimate situation.

A young woman comes over to us and says “Take a photo of me.” When I tell her we’re not allowed to capture her face, she scoffs. “We’re already on camera,” she says, waving her arms at the multiple security cameras that line the room.

The lawyer

Shortall has been working with women in prisons for well over a decade.
Shortall has been working with women in prisons for well over a decade.

Shortall has been working with women in prisons for well over a decade. Back when she was a lawyer in New York, she was working with vulnerable women in low socio-economic areas like Harlem and the Bronx when she saw an ad calling for lawyers to work alongside female inmates in New York State Prisons, who needed help when it came to caring for their children on the outside.

Shortall is quick to point out that helping female inmates does not, in any way, “take away from the criminality of their actions or the victims they have”. But she believes by the time a mother reaches prison, her positive support system has collapsed. Shortall sees herself, and her volunteer colleagues, as “connection builders”.

It was on her return to New Zealand in 2010, and during her work on the high-profile Pike River Mine inquiry, that she decided to start a similar programme here.

Shortall had been reading up on the non-accidental deaths of children under three in New Zealand, where we have the fifth worst statistics in the OECD, and saw recurring themes of drug and alcohol dependency, poverty and violence. The goal was always to end the cycle of these complementary miseries, and she believes the next generation is the way to do it.

“I’m a big believer in kids being the future of everything – you help the mother, you help the family, and you help the kids.”

So she set up the Mothers Project in Wiri in 2015. The programme is also running successfully in Wellington’s Arohata Prison and has been introduced in Christchurch Women’s Prison.

When she first started here, Shortall assumed things would be different than in New York, where the combination of a massive population and sprawling state system meant the most common problem was tracking down the inmates’ family.

But as one of the volunteer lawyers tells NEXT, the first comment from the women seeking help here is almost always: “I can’t find my children.” And so the majority of their work is acting as the intermediary between either CYF or the child’s caregivers, and the mother.

As inmates, they are reliant on being able to call CYF at a time when there is a case worker at their desk, which is hard as the system is so busy and their phone time is limited. We all know how annoying a game of phone tag can be when we’re trying to get an urgent answer; now imagine you don’t have regular access to a phone, you can’t have a call returned to you easily, and the matter at stake is the location of your child. The frustration is extraordinary.

“In a country the size of ours, with the kinds of systems and frameworks we have, I didn’t expect that to be so prevalent,” Shortall admits. “I think there are a lot of reasons, other than prison, that distance mothers from their children. They can be circumstances that pre-existed them coming in here, but prison adds an additional dynamic to it. The good thing about New Zealand is it’s easier to find them, with the help of CYF and other agencies.”

But for a lot of the inmates, their dealings with these agencies have been fraught – either during their time in prison or as children themselves. While Shortall says CYF and its ilk do a good and important job, this preconception is why she’s always quick to point out to the women that the Mothers Project is its own entity.

“We don’t have any skin in the game! We’re just about trying to help these kids by helping their mothers. Because no matter how hardened they have become as a result of their criminal offending, or what has happened to them, the one thing that can still touch them is their children.”

When that touchpoint is lost, says Shortall, so is the will for rehabilitation. Working in the US, she saw first-hand the immediate effect removal would have.

“As soon as you tell these women they no longer have parental rights, that the law no longer recognises them as a parent, you are basically sucking the goodness out of that woman. When you’re continuing to give hope – realistic, appropriate hope – you are incentivising good behaviour. And that’s worth a shot.”

And while no-one doubts the children deserve a fair chance, Shortall – herself a mother of four – wants to stress that so do their mothers.

“It’s easy to judge when you’ve never walked in the shoes of some of these women. I have spent, at this point, 15 years in and out of women’s prisons in different parts of the world and I’ve encountered a lot of women in that time where I have listened to their stories and I’ve thought ‘there but for a couple of small moments
in their lives and mine…’ These are not always big, huge, catastrophic things that set a woman on a different course. They are encounters with one other person who abused them – or worse – in that circum-stance. So I think there is a bit of ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ in all of this. And we should remember we may be fortunate.”

The mother

“I’ve come a long way since I’ve been in here,” says Tina*. It’s not the first time she’s been at Wiri, but it’s her longest stint in the facility. She’s been here almost three months, and the first month was hard. Coming off four years of meth, and 10 years of drinking, she says she was angry with everyone around her.

“I was disobedient to the staff, thinking they were attacking me, were all against me. But then I came to realise they’re actually giving me a chance to come back to life.”

Tina has three children; one was fully in her custody before she entered Wiri and the other two live with their dads. She has been raising her youngest since he was born, and when I ask her what she is hoping to get out of the Mothers Project, she says she wants a better future for her and her son.

Coming off the drugs has been the unexpected upside of her time inside, and now she feels clearer about what she wants for both of them. His schooling is a priority, she says, and having space away from her old life has taught her that. As she speaks, her manner is calm and direct – something that is mirrored in the other inmates sharing their stories around the room. There is no pretence; they are unflinching in the descriptions of their past lives or why they’re here.

Through talking to Tina, another aspect of the Mothers Project is slowly revealed. She says this conversation is the first time – in three months – she’s “had some-body allow me” to speak about her kids. “I just want to be able to talk about them. But I don’t want to boast about it, to the other women. We’re all in here for our own reasons and that’s the last thing they want to hear. But I’ve been aching to talk about them.”

The prison director

I don’t know if you ever considered prison work the kind of role where you’d claim “total job satisfaction for 28 years”, but Wiri prison director Cheryle Mikaere sounds extremely convinced when she says it.

Her uniform is sharp and her hair is firmly pulled back, but she has the smile lines of someone who grins often and enthusiastically. This is not what you’d expect from someone whose office walls includes a list of emergency procedures – and corresponding alarm codes – including hostage situations, prisoner suicide, faecal protest and bomb threats.

She’s not the one-note character that pop culture would tell you a prison director should be. She speaks with great pride about the women who make up the prison community, both inmates and staff, and the work they’re doing at Wiri.

Her purpose, she says, has always been clear. “I know why I’m here, and it’s them. The goal is to do myself out of a job.”

One of her many jobs in the industry, before she was a director, was as a manager. There she dealt with the women arriving straight from court. She saw first-hand how agitated and frustrated they were – the first concern was always the children, wanting to contact the caregiver, make sure the kids were okay, that the house was okay.

“All those things where mothers multi-task and prioritise,” Mikaere says. Once the Mothers Project started, there was a tangible shift in the mental health of the mothers.

“There are less prisoner complaints and incidents in our system. That tension dissolves away, because they’re being supported. Our staff don’t have that expertise, so that’s where the lawyers coming in absolutely support our wahine. It gives them the assurance they’re being given the right information from the right people.”

Like Shortall, Mikaere says strengthening the relationship between mother and child is the key to changing the cycle of offending. The prison is also working to do that in its Mothers with Babies units. At all three women’s prisons in New Zealand, there are self-contained units where mums can live with their young children.

They’re designed for mothers who were pregnant when put in custody, who have kids under the age of two, or who were the primary caregiver or will be upon release. It’s designed to give mother and baby crucial time to bond, which helps the baby and also aids the mother’s motivation to be released.

The results have been positive across the board, she says. “When baby has reached two years old, mum has achieved all of her programmes, interventions and has received a favourable decision by the parole board and has been released. So we have not had – in the time I’ve been here – a mum that has been with baby for up to two years and then baby is sent home and mum stays here.”

For many of the mums, it’s not their first time having a child, but it is their first time being a captive parent. And this time around, it’s been the intervention they need to give them the motivation to change. That switch, as Mikaere puts it, has been flicked on. And it’s on all of us, she stresses, to continue that support when mothers are released from prison.

“Everything rests upon the community to come together to ensure there is a support system. If there is a wahine who has served a fairly lengthy sentence away from their family, they’ve lost that support. So when they’re released they go out with a criminal record, nobody wants to employ them, nobody wants to give them accommodation, it’s hard for them to get a bank account, all those sorts of things. It comes back to creating a new community for them. As we know, they could be our neighbours one day. My view – and I have said this time and time again – is it will be our wahine that break the cycle.”

The May issue of *NEXT* is on sale on April 17th
The May issue of NEXT is on sale on April 17th

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