"The day Mum was locked away was the beginning of the worst 18 months of my life."

I was taught from a young age the importance of setting goals and the steps needed to make my dreams a reality. But in a counselling session at the age of 15, it felt like all my plans for the future were unravelling. This was the day my mum told me and my siblings she was going to prison.

It was a Wednesday afternoon when Mum called my boss asking him to let me go early. At the time I was in the middle of my HSC, working one day a week in a school based traineeship and had never left work early. When Mum came to pick me up, she came with a car full of people. She had my two younger brothers, my younger sister, my step dad and my aunty. All we knew was that we were going to family counselling but had no idea why.

In the counselling session Mum explained that over the last three years she had been going through an investigation and court case relating to Centrelink fraud. She hadn’t reported her income since my brother was born and in two months she was going to be sentenced. I don’t remember much of what happened after the counselling session other than feeling angry. Not anger about the possibility of my mother going to prison, but anger that she had kept this secret from me for so many years. Anger that she chose to share, what I viewed as private family matter, in front of a stranger for the first time.

Over the next few months we had many private and intimate moments where we would talk and try to unpack the enormity of the situation – what this would mean for our family. The more I thought about my mother leaving, the more I began to doubt my ability to survive without her. I started dropping subjects at school and at one point considered leaving all together. Mum ended up calling my high school and explaining to my principal what was happening at home – she wouldn’t let me escape from my life. I still had to go to school and work, and participate in all my leadership programs, all the while hiding my inner turmoil from the world. The day Mum was sentenced, was my last day on a week-long leadership camp. I desperately wanted to go to court but Mum wouldn’t let me. She was scared about exposing me and my siblings to even more trauma.

Going beyond the barbed wire at Silverwater Women’s Correctional Centre, the inmates share what it’s actually like being a woman in prison.

Video by SBS Insight

The day Mum was locked away was the beginning of the worst 18 months of my life. I had seen other family members go to prison. Some had been in juvenile detention centres, others in adult jails. My father had been in prison on and off for two years while I was in primary school. While seeing Dad in prison was difficult, it was nothing compared the experience of seeing Mum locked away. Mum was the glue that kept our family together. She was the protector, the breadwinner, the confidant. Mum was our world.

I visited Mum every weekend she was in jail and it was never easy. The days leading up the visits were always hectic. I would co-ordinate the visits between us kids, our extended family and friends. This involved organising booking times, transport and money. Most of this was done during lunch times or on the way to and from school. When we visited, I didn’t see the mother I was used to having at home. She didn’t dress or smell the same and we never had a minute alone.

At home I took over the role of my mother. As my responsibility in the home grew, so did the tension between me and my family. Eventually my step dad asked me to leave and I moved in with my aunty. Until Mum came home I lived out of a suitcase. Going from house to house. I had a bed, I had school, I had work, I had visits. But I didn’t feel like I had a place that was my own.

When Mum finally came home it was like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I could be a child again. I started university a few weeks after her release. The goals I thought I lost when Mum went to prison were coming to fruition and in 2015 I graduated from the University of Sydney as a Social Worker.

I would never wish the experience of a parent going to prison on any child; however my mum’s time away has only made my family stronger. My mother is one of the most resilient people I know and her ability to guide our family through that time from inside a cell has only grown my respect and admiration for her.

Jemma is a guest on tonight’s episode of Insight at 8.30pm on SBS, which explores what it’s like when your parent goes to prison.

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