opinion

"I was in prison for 11 months. Here's how the system is stacked against women after we've done our time.”

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Eleni is a formerly incarcerated person, released from Dillwynia Correctional facility for women in 2014 after 11 months inside.

She is now the Program Manager for Success Works at Dress for Success – a not-for-profit that supports women affected by the criminal justice system.  

“I have talked to men who have been incarcerated and they often say that they didn't have as many problems getting employment,” Eleni tells Mamamia

“And I think it's because many people in society believe that if a woman has been to prison, then she must be a really bad person, because women 'don't do things that send them to prison'.”

Eleni with her work colleague Juanita at Dress For Success. Image: Supplied.

“Many women that are affected by the criminal justice system have a history of trauma prior to offending, but once clothed in this ‘stain’ no one sees the prior trauma or how desperately someone wants their life to change. They just see the ‘the stain.’” she says. 

“It was my one-time trouble with the law, and for a lot of the women that I work with as well, it was their one time. They're the ones that realise how hard it is to move forward, even with extensive support services and skills, because the barrier is the record.

“When you come out you hope that your life will be able to move forward but you realise quite quickly, you have a label. And you've got to fight that constantly.” 

Eleni. Image: Belinda Mason.

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Eleni counts herself as one of the lucky ones. Upon her release, she had an apartment to go home to and family and friends for support. But for many, like the 900 women that were released from prison into homelessness in 2019, they find they have nowhere to go. 

“It used to be set up so that two weeks before your release Centrelink would come to the prison and they would set everything up for you before your release,” Eleni explains. 

“Now, they don't do that anymore.

“They might be given enough money to get two nights’ accommodation and a travel card with $20 on it and they've got to find their way to Centrelink, and look for accommodation.

“I know of women in prison that have purposely gone onto Tinder on the day of release. Just so that they've got somewhere to stay,” she describes.

“Accommodation and housing are a huge problem.”

In Australia, one in two will go back inside within the first two years of being released. Eleni attributes this to the lack of accommodation and access to support services.

“It’s a real catch-22, because to feel safe, you need a roof over your head and the wait for social housing is years long. So, the other option is private rental, and you need an income to get approved for that,” she says.

“I can really see why people give up because the system makes it so hard for them.”

After Eleni’s first month of being home, which she described as initially being "dreamlike", the bills started coming in and with a mortgage to pay she knew she had to find work. 

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“It was demoralising, I was looking at job applications where I wanted to use my skills but there was always a criminal record check on those applications,” she says. 

“I wanted to be honest, but I was so scared to disclose that I had been incarcerated and I would feel full of shame. I would feel that shame for the rest of that day. So, I was looking for work where I wasn't using my extensive work skills, but applying for jobs, where they didn't ask for a criminal record check, just to get some money in,” she says.

“And the effect that had on my mental health... it made me feel I was not deserving of a job and that I wasn't worthy. People don't look at the 'before', or the 'after' and the rehabilitation that someone's done.

“I know one woman [who was previously incarcerated] she got a second interview for a job she wanted to be honest. When she disclosed her criminal record, the woman interviewing her stood up and backed away from her and had her physically escorted from the building by the elbow.

“She rang me afterwards in tears and she said she felt like she got arrested all over again.

“So, I think people in the community, and employers and organisations who don't understand the impact of what that does, are really adding to the problem again; they're not solving it.”

Eleni further explained how the system is stacked against women. “In prison, they say that they have a lot of programs for people who are incarcerated, but you need to be in prison for more than twelve months to have access to most of these programs,” she explains. 

“Most women are sentenced to less than twelve months and a third are on remand and haven’t been sentenced yet. This means around 90 per cent of women who are sitting in prison, which is supposed to be corrective, can’t access these programs.

“So, that needs to change; if rehabilitation is the key to keeping people out of prison, for women, there's not much rehabilitation happening.”

Image: Supplied.

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Eleni is a Program Manager for Dress for Success Sydney in the Success Works division: the only program of its kind in Australia for women. The program supports all women with a criminal record upon release from prison or who are serving their sentence in the community, aiming to increase employability and connecting to employers for actual employment.

“We help women one-on-one; we advocate for them and help them when they need to disclose, they have a record in an interview,” she explains. 

Eleni assisting Sierra in the SBS series Life on the Outside. Also featured, Danielle Cormack, who presents the series. Image: SBS.

“We connect to employers, which is where the barrier is, and we help to educate them. One of the biggest misconceptions is that all people that have been to prison do not have any kind of work skills therefore, they're not employable,” she says.

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“People with an extensive working history can find themselves behind bars.”

We asked Eleni what can be done. How can we help change and challenge stereotypes and misconceptions?

“Doing what we're doing right now. Starting conversations, like what the SBS documentary, Life on the Outside is doing; it's exposing the community to issues and conversations about things that they otherwise would never hear or even consider.”

Eleni assisting Sierra at Dress for Success in the series, Life on the Outside. Image: SBS.

Eleni says she always comes back to the advice she heard in prison, from a surprising source. 

“One day I was standing in the medication line, and I must have had a worried look on my face,” she says. “A prison officer patted me on the shoulder, and she said to me, "you know there's a fine line between blue and green", because police officers wear blue and in NSW, prisoners wear green.

“And she said, "any one of us can be on the other side of the fence". And I always go back to that. This could happen to anybody given the perfect life storm, everyone assumes that people in prison are terrible people, but this could truly happen to anyone,” she says. 

“I never thought I would experience this. And it's in experiencing this, and then hearing other women's stories, I’ve realised this could happen to anybody.”

Feature image: Getty. 

SBS
Groundbreaking new SBS documentary series Life on the Outside follows four formerly incarcerated prisoners as they embark on a never-before-seen on television experiment that looks at whether the outcome can change if you place newly released prisoners into households for the first 100 days of their release. Stream Free on SBS On Demand.