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How the Mothers Project is helping women behind bars

The Hui, Newshub, 21 July 2019

Once a month, Stacey Shortall pays a visit to one of four women's prisons around the country.

"It's not an easy place to go into a prison, to walk around the units and to engage with women who have often developed a veneer and a way of talking and a toughness around them, a resilience that they needed to survive."

Stacey and a team of volunteer lawyers run the Mothers Project, which provides support services to imprisoned mums, such as navigating the complexities of the Family Court and Oranga Tamariki.

In the past four years, the initiative has helped more than 500 jailed mums, like Heeni.

"I've always found it hard to ask for helpmself, but I've also learned being in here that asking for help is OK. I've always been this independent woman, surviving myself," says Heeni.

Heeni - which is not her real name - has two kids. She served her first sentence at the age of 25. She's now 33 and serving her third sentence. And for the sake of her kids, she's determined to make it her last.

"When you are sober in here and you have a lot of time to think and get your act together in here, it makes you want to strive to do better for your kids out there, to be a better mother for them."

For Heeni, being locked upmant being kept in the dark about her kids' lives. She had no idea where her four-year-old son was until Stacey and her team managed to track down his caregivers.

"The Mothers Project and working with the social worker who was wonderful as well, who was able to help connect with him and the caregivers that I was able to do that. The fact that they were volunteers, willing to come and help us, I think that said a lot for us ladies because it is a trust thing, especially when it concerns our kids," says Heeni.

How Stacey got started

Over the past 20 years Stacey has helped many women like Heeni who have been estranged from their children while in jail. It started when she was a litigator in New York in the 1990s, doing pro bono work for the Incarcerated Mothers Project.

"They sent lawyers once a month into the medium-security facility, which at that time was based in Manhattan and they were looking for volunteers.

"I didn't have any experience whatsoever with dealing with prisoners - I'm not a criminal lawyer, I'm a commercial, white-collar lawyer by background - but I thought I could at least turn up, interview a mother, understand what her issues were and then find someone who could help her. 

"I ended up for over a decade working on that project, and not withstanding that I wasn't a family lawyer, I took quite a few women on as clients and represented them in family courts in New York."

Now back home, she wanted to provide the same support to women in Aotearoa. It's a world away from New York, but the struggles are no different.

"The same things are there the demographic has changed, it's mainly Māori, as opposed to African-American, but the same challenges are certainly prevalent around education, joblessness, illiteracy, financial constraints, same challenges around not being able to make contact, not being able to access easily a lawyer that can help them."

Stacey says she didn't expect to see the drug addiction as strong here as working in some of the prisons in New York. She realised methamphetamine use in New Zealand seems to be just as strong here and a component of these women's experience of life, and may well be part of their exposure when they're released.

More women going to prison

New Zealand's female prison population has increased more than 150 percent since 2002 - more than half of all women inmates are Māori, and it's that alarming rise that's forced prisons to take a different tack.

The Department of Corrections Women's Strategy is their five-year plan on improving women's wellbeing and the impact of being separated from their families. Part of that has been providing women to access social workers and mental health professionals while they're in jail, recognising the high levels of trauma many of these women have faced.

"Sixty-five percent of our women have suffered some kind of trauma in their life, whether it be family violence or sexual violence, and by doing that what we can do with our women so they can go on and they can be released and they can be good mothers and role models for their children, because we're really mindful that they're raising that next generation," says Arohata Women's deputy prison director Sue Abraham.

Sue says the Mothers Project has been transformational for the women.

"They're mothers and they're grandmothers, so for them to be able to maintain that connection with their whanau and their children and the wider community is a real asset, it's a gift," she says.

Where previously jailed mums like Heeni had little or no contact with their tamariki, the Mothers Project has given them a second chance.

"They helped me get in touch with the caregivers that are looking after him at the moment for me and they also printed out photos for me, so I can see him every day," Heeni adds.

"My son, he's four years old, gorgeous little boy, quite intelligent, I love him dearly, I miss him a lot."

Angela's story

Angela Te Rangimarie has missed her kids too. She's just finished serving a two-year sentence for burglary.

"What drove me while I was in prison was my daughter. She sent me a letter and that letter I used to hang up on my wall and read it every day," Angela says.

Angela's youngest son had been placed in foster care while she was in jail. Through the Mothers Project the 40-year-old was able to locate and reconnect with her son.

"His real family still loves him. That's the message I wanted to give to him, that I love him. It doesn't stop while you're in prison, my children hurt as well," she says.

Angela's now working with Wellington's Orongomai Marae's Teresa Thompson, taking part in a reintegration programme that places a strong focus on building whakapapa and whanau links.

"It's hard to reintegrate on the outside if you don't have that support and there is a likeliness that they will reoffend because they don't have those support networks. Whanau is crucial for that point of just helping them, supporting them through the process and living back out in the community," says Teresa.

Stacey is adamant that our corrections system must do better for these women, giving mums like Angela the support they need while in jail, to help shape a brighter future when they're released. 

"That was my last chapter, this is a new chapter that I'm making of my life now. I love where I am, and yes, things will get better," says Angela.

Ruwani Perera, The Hui

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