'There's nothing glamorous about it.' Behind the bars of Silverwater women's maximum security jail.

Women behind bars is a hot topic right now. But rather than pointing to soaring rates of incarceration or recidivism, the headlines about female prisoners are generally found in the entertainment pages – “Orange Is the New Black Season 5 spoilers“, “Has Wentworth really been cancelled?“.

But what is it really like for women on the other side of the barbed wire?

Over two special episodes, SBS current affairs programme Insight will show viewers the reality of prison life according to inmates and staff at the Silverwater Women’s Correctional Centre – a maximum-security facility in Sydney’s west.

The episodes dispense with the show’s regular forum format, and instead are pinned around one-on-one interviews conducted by host Jenny Brockie.

“It’s a very intense and fascinating look at a world you don’t normally get to see,” she told Mamamia.

With unprecedented access beyond Silverwater’s towering walls and razor-sharp wire, Insight offers a glimpse into a place most of us have to piece together from pop culture.

“It’s quite an experience to be inside a high-security jail,” Brockie said. “Just on a personal level, to have to walk in and go through four sets of gates and bio-metric testing and that sort of thing, before you’ve even got in.”

Passing through the layers of fencing, past the vast slabs of concrete, Brockie says there’s a sense of stepping in to a very different world.

“You look around and there are trees and a bit of grass and it looks quite pleasant, and then you realise there’s no one sitting under the trees. And you go back a number of times and there’s never anyone sitting under the trees, because you are in a maximum-security prison,” she said.

“Then other times you look and you see a group of women walking together, and it’s almost like a high school. It’s a very strange environment.”

The Insight team spent a year pulling the two-part special together, and settled on telling the story through the eyes of four prisoners who were interviewed over the course of several months.

"What we wanted to do was very in keeping with Insight," she said. "It's people's personal stories. It's finding out: Who are these people? What have they done? What are their attitudes towards their crimes? Where do they come from?"


The offenders featured in the programme include a woman convicted of bashing someone with a cricket bat ("I didn't feel anything"), to one who has spent the last 16 years in and out of jail, to another involved in the importation of 175kg of opium.

"She could be the woman living next-door to you in a suburban house," says Brockie of the latter. "If you look at her, she could be anybody.”

They speak with striking candour of their crimes, responsibility and remorse (or lack of), how they negotiate day-to-day life behind bars and the often intense relationships they form with fellow inmates.

Jenny Brockie interviewed inmates over several months. Image: supplied.

One offender who taught herself how to hack credit card accounts during an ice binge speaks of deliberately breaching parole in order to return to the inside.

"She would rather be in jail than out of jail. It’s partly because it’s a community, I think. When I asked her what she missed from the outside, she said ‘smoking’. She didn’t say friends or family," said Brockie.

When the award-winning journalist pointed that out to her, the inmate said she only had four numbers in her phone: her grandmother, Kids Helpline and the two fathers of her children.


"It’s a quite strong and confronting picture," said Brockie. "It’s a hidden world."

The four inmates have committed different crimes, but there are similarities in their stories. Images: SBS.

Incarceration rates of women in Australia have increased 60 per cent in the past decade, with 11 per cent more women behind bars in just the last two years alone. And once released, 40 per cent will return.

In speaking to four of the people who have contributed to those statistics, Brockie observed a number of common threads in their stories - generally centred around cycles of substance abuse, dysfunction and disadvantage.

"Education is one; leaving school young. Violence is another, in terms domestic violence. Having boyfriends or partners who are in jail or have been in jail is very common," she said. "The other thing is that they want a better life for their children, but they don’t always put together the fact that being in jail isn’t good for their children."

It's clear a conversation needs to be had around the issue, one which Brockie hopes the programme can prompt.

"One of the things I’d like people to think about and think about is children – children born into this kind of world and what happens to them, and what can you do to to ensure that the path they go on is different. What sort of intervention could there be that could break that cycle where people do what they know, do what they see around them?"

The alternative for those young people is the possibility of landing themselves in the strange world of Silverwater - a place where the rules they broke on outside become commandments inside, where reporting disobedience is met with violence, where power struggles and politics are in constant negotiation.

While programmes like Orange is the New Black capture these aspects of life behind bars, they also have a tendency to glamourise the prison experience. But there's no risk of that on tonight's Insight.

"There's nothing glamorous about this women's prison," said Brockie. "Nothing at all."

Insight - Lockdown airs 8:30pm Tuesday November 8 and November 15 on SBS.