Social justice advocate, writer and former prison officer the late Celia Lashlie wrote about the power of mothers to break the cycle of offending. By transforming the lives of women in prison, new generations would be much better equipped to lead a life free from crime.
But she also believed people need to understand the trauma and abuse that leads to their imprisonment. The Department of Corrections’ new strategy for women, called Wahine e rere ana ki te pae hou: Women’s Strategy 2017–2021, takes a huge step forward in trying to address the needs of women prisoners and help them turn around their lives.
In June 2017, there were 6712 women managed by the Department of Corrections: 739 in prison and 5973 in the community. Here are some disturbing statistics about women serving sentences in prison:
- The female prison population has increased by more than 150% since 2002 when there were 275 female prisoners in New Zealand. More than half of the women in prison identify as Maori.
- 68% of women in prison have been the victim of family violence.
- 62% of women in prison have both mental health and substance disorders across their lifetime (41% male prisoners)
- 52% of women in prison have post-traumatic stress disorder across their lifetime (22% male prisoners).
Clearly, a new approach is needed and I am hopeful that the implementation of this new strategy will see a dramatic decline in the numbers of women entering the justice system.
In the foreword to the strategy, Ray Smith, Chief Executive of the Department of Corrections, says many women offenders have “complex and entwined histories of severe trauma, mental health issues, substance abuse, unhealthy relationships and poverty”.
Recognising the importance of relationships for women, and helping them rebuild and maintain healthy relationships, is a key focus of the strategy. So too is working with women prisoners in ways that are trauma-informed and empowering.
“The work we do today will have an impact not just on the women themselves but on their children and generations of New Zealanders,” Ray Smith concludes.
Arts an essential tool to help heal the traumatic lives of women
I believe the arts and creativity are essential tools to help heal the traumatic lives of women and build positive relationships. Over the years, Arts Access Aotearoa has been involved in a number of arts projects and programmes in women’s prisons: quilting, creative writing, theatre and dance, painting and the creation of murals.
I have seen firsthand the positive impact these projects have had on the women: things like increased confidence and self-esteem, pride in their achievements, improved communication skills and the ability to examine and express their often painful histories.
So where are the arts positioned within this strategy? In the section titled Industry, Treatment & Learning, it states:
“Therapeutic, skill and developmental programmes such as arts, drama, book clubs, quilting and weaving will continue to be delivered by volunteers. We will develop these programmes and bring new programmes into prison such as a Mother’s Storybook programme.”
We also know that mahi toi (the arts) are integral to tikanga-based programmes run in prisons and provide a way to educate, connect and reconnect. They will, I’m sure, be an essential part of women’s rehabilitation pathway founded in kaupapa Māori therapeutic values.
Wealth of international research
For those who aren’t convinced of the positive impact the arts can have on prisoners’ lives – their mental wellbeing, self-esteem, employment opportunities, reintegration – there’s a wealth of international research documenting the role of the arts in the criminal justice system.
Thanks to UK academic and theatre practitioner Dr Selina Busby for this month’s Q & A: Arts in Corrections insights about the use of theatre to change lives. Here, she discusses her work with women participating in the Clean Break Theatre Company and the results of research she conducted on the impact of their involvement.
Importantly, Dr Busby highlights the need to research and evaluate your projects. “If we want something to change, we have to prove there is a better way of doing things. The criminal justice system is broken but arts practitioners need to provide evidence that there is a different way to do things – a way that works, reduces offending, keep communities safe and values human beings.”
Powerful stuff! Also powerful are the remarkable women in our communities around New Zealand who have shared their artistic skills and compassion with prisoners for so many years. Women like quilters June Nixey, Janet Forbes and Mary Ann France; Professor Tracey McIntosh and writer Pip Adam; artist Robyn Hughes; tivaevae specialist Mary Ama; and raranga expert Wiki Turner. Read this month’s story, Women and creativity in prisons.
These women (and many others) provide positive role models and encourage healthy relationships built on mutual respect. Thank you for all you have done.