Stepping up at Arohata Prison
24 January 2012
"We have prisoners who write and publish poetry. We have visual artists. One makes origami, another writes waiata. When prisoners come here they have a raw talent. If we can get someone to work with them to develop that talent, it gives the women the confidence to step up and make change," says Ann Abraham, Prison Manager at Arohata Prison in Wellington.
“Through the arts, we can connect with the women more easily. There is so much talent among them. Such amazing women come in through these doors. If they had been given a different place of birth and a different time, they could have had very different lives.”
Ann Abraham talked recently to Moana Tipa, Prison Arts Advisor, Arts Access Aotearoa, when Moana visited Arohata Prison as part of the Department of Corrections’ prison arts planning survey being conducted in all prisons around the country.
“Ann brings innovation and creativity to the rehabilitation process,” Moana says. “This happens partly because of budget considerations but also because of great staff, who genuinely care about prisoners being able to step up to make the changes needed.”
Ann says that responding to each prisoner’s rehabilitative needs is a focus for the Department. “The women at Arohata have such individual needs that we tend to go out to find a volunteer service, organisation or individual who can meet that need.”
She praises the ability of the Department’s Volunteer Co-ordinator Jenny Grant in tracking down the required skills and services among her volunteer networks.
“We talk to Jenny about the kind of services we need for the women, and she goes out and finds them within the local community and beyond,” Ann says. “I have fabulous staff, who respond well to making progress with the women.”
All up, there are approximately 35 volunteers who visit Arohata Prison on a regular basis. A quilting group has been running classes every Saturday morning since 1993 and a Toastmasters group is teaching public speaking. A Wellington writer shares her love of reading and her writing skills while another volunteer is starting up elocution lessons.
In addition, the Napier Pilot City Trust has introduced a mentoring programme at Arohata Prison, using the arts as a way to support Napier women in prison and when they are reintegrated back into the community.
Only Drug Treatment Unit for women prisoners
Arohata Prison has the only Drug Treatment Unit for women prisoners in New Zealand. Here, women undertake a 24-week drug and alcohol programme, which includes cognitive behavioural therapy, education on addiction and change, and the learning of new skills.
“The programme is really good but it’s hard work,” Ann says. “One person causing strife within the programme slows the progress for everyone. A prisoner may need to attend but she may not be ready for it. We have to help them get ready to undertake the programme so they can receive maximum benefit.”
For instance, some women may be afraid to go into a programme because they can’t read or write. “We might get a volunteer in to develop literacy skills for up to a year to help them get ready.
“If prisoners are not ready, then they’ll fall down. Our job is to get them ready. If we put them into a programme too early, we run the risk of losing all the work we’ve put into them.”
Building safety and trust
Ann says that when the doors are locked on the women at night, it’s often the first time in their lives the women have been safe.
“They trust nobody. If we start to develop their skills and their raw talent and they can see for themselves that they’re successful, they can trust us a little.
“Then we can get them to step up a little more and help them begin to move on in their lives. I have to earn their trust and they have to earn mine. When I tell them I’ll do something, I’ll do it. If I can’t do it, I front up and tell them. I try to give them as much information about what they need to be doing so they can reclaim their lives.”