A former prisoner shares the reality of life in an Australian women's prison.

It’s ALMOST nothing like the television shows.

Did you know that the headphones you use on flights may have been wound and packaged by a woman in prison?

Or that the telemarketer you just spoke to may have called you from inside a NSW women’s correctional facility? (Post continues after video.)

Video via Vocativ

Those are just two of the jobs offered to inmates in the state’s women’s prisons, according to Kat Armstrong the founder of Sydney-based WIPAN (Women in Prison Advocacy Network), a grassroots advocacy group operating on behalf of women in our criminal justice system.

Armstrong knows better than most about what life on the inside because she lived it.

She is former heroin addict and was incarcerated for crimes she committed to support her addiction.

This week she joined Sarah McDonald and Rebecca Huntley on the on the Debrief Daily podcast “Just Between Us” to talk about her advocacy in that role and bust some myths about prison life for women.

We all know that popular television shows about women’s prisons, like Wentworth and Orange is the New Black, greatly exaggerate certain aspects of what goes on, but there are one or two things they do get right.

For example, the women are resourceful — especially when it comes to personal care.

“I’ve seen a couple of episodes of Orange is the New Black,” Armstrong says.

“Quite a lot of it, I believe, is sensationalised and some things are similar but most of it is not the reality of what actually occurs in there on a day to day basis.

“Some of the the things [that are similar include] how resourceful the women become in doing things for themselves, because you just lose everything. So the things that they use to do beauty treatments and make-up and those sorts of things, they can become quite creative and quite inventive.”

orange is the new black


Those who are lucky enough to have money (or relatives on the outside with money) can purchase the basics, such as foundation, mascara, lipstick and rouge, but the majority of the women do not have the resources.

“They might use their oat cereal that they would use as their breakfast cereal as a face mask,” she explains.

“So they would mix that up with milk or water and make a paste and then use that as a face mask.

“If you are working out in the gardens of the prison you get sunscreen, so a lot of the women will use that sunscreen as a moisturiser for the rest of their bodies.”


Those without money going in, earn a nominal wage from work programs, but according to Armstrong in NSW the amount ranged from $13 and $70 a week

That tiny amount is for everything as well, all of your toiletries; shampoo, conditioner, soap, toothbrush and any extras like chocolate or a kettle.

“That’s what you have to survive on.”


And the jobs aren’t exactly stimulating (winding headphones, anyone?).

Armstrong believes that boredom and the lack of education programs for women in correctional facilities is “the biggest issue.”

“Empowerment, education, jobs and training is the answer and giving a person a second chance so that they can successfully transition into the community and becoming functioning member of the community,” she says.


If a woman in prison chooses to opt for full-time education, the wage she earns will fall somewhere in the realm of $25 a week — not a great incentive.

The female prison population is one of the fastest growing in Australia and the majority of female prisoners come from deeply disadvantaged backgrounds; 98% report a history of childhood and adult sexual, emotional or physical abuse.

They are more likely to have poor mental and physical health than men and have higher rates of substance abuse.

“You have a lot of women who have significant trauma, significant drug addiction issues and significant mental health problems all just thrown in together,” Armstrong says.

“Can you imagine the dynamics and the situation of that?”

She said it is especially difficult for women who aren’t incarcerated for drug or alcohol related offences who are then forced to share a cell for 16-18 hours a day with someone who is, for example, coming down from a drug like ice.


“I went to prison. I was a heroin addict so I committed crime to support my addiction. But heroin addiction and coming down off heroin is very different from speed or ice, cociane, alcohol and the psychosis that women experience as a result of withdrawing from drugs like that is majorly significant.”


That’s not to say that women don’t make friends though — or form romantic attachments.

“I could give you five names right now …  of women who I met when I was in prison and who will be my lifelong friends until the day I die,” she says.

She also explained that gay relationships were widely accepted (both by prisoners and guards) but often don’t last once women are released.

They usually begin “out of the necessity for comfort and companionship more so than the sexual need,” she says, “because as human beings all we want is to be loved, nurtured and accepted.”

She also answered the period question.

“You put a lot of women together, within a couple of months all the women are menstruating the same time — and some women get serious PMT.

“Quite honestly, women can be dead-set bitches.”

Listen to the full podcast here or download it on iTunes here:

Find out more about the Mamamia Podcast Network here.

You can find out more about WIPAN on their website or keep up to dat their Facebook page.

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