Life inside a women’s prison was not what I expected

Life inside a women’s prison was not what I expected


I spent a few hours in a women's prison recently. Not in a Paris Hilton/Lindsay Lohan kind of way, where they were so full they had to let me out before my dad's limo had a chance to do a three-point turn in front of the intake building.

It wasn't even in a Ruby Rose (of Orange Is the New Black) kind of way, where I got to slouch around in a singlet, squinting in a brooding way. No, I just went for a chat about books and chooks and life in general. I was supposed to be there.

While both of us have kicked our habits, only one of us did sowith the help of a knitting circle.Credit:iStock

There's a volunteer group at the local library that runs a literacy program inside the prison. The prison book club is very dedicated, probably by virtue of the fact there's precious little to do but read. And I swear, without a word of a lie, the book they're reading for July is Paul Brickhill's The Great Escape.

Quite how that one made it through is a mystery to me, but the big house is surprising in many ways. For one thing, it's lots of little houses, and there are chooks, which is why we were talking about them. But that's not all. There are even noisier, messier animals roaming around kicking up dirt and occasionally pecking each other in the form of little humans. The women in this prison are allowed to keep their children with them until they're school-aged.

Chooks, books, peacocks and children – all set in the tranquil countryside. I don't know exactly what I was expecting. (Yes, I do: Vera Vinegar Tits and at least a sly wink from Franky in the yard.) But I wasn't expecting all this and a perfect flat white, lovingly made by a hospitality grad, on my way into the common room for my author talk.

In what may seem like a strange twist (or maybe not), I have visited a couple of men's prisons before. I suppose I was expecting a women's prison to be similar to those, but with toilet rolls that didn't need changing and less air-drying of dishes. That's pretty much what I got, although they were flying visits; it's not like I got a full-immersion staycation with head flush and scared-straight experience.

They were nice places to visit but I wouldn't want to live there. "Who would?" I hear you ask. Well, I think you'd be surprised. I was intrigued by a woman who told me she'd decided against applying for parole. The more we chatted, the more I felt I understood why. She had a history not too dissimilar to mine in that she'd found herself living with her parents and her young children during her father's terminal illness.

It was a very stressful time for both of us, but unlike me she had no support, no employment, no savings, and a son with autism. We'd both self-medicated: me with wine and she with heroin. Mine led to weight gain and regrettable tweets, hers to credit-card fraud and prison. While both of us have kicked our habits, only one of us did so with the help of a knitting circle and weekly sessions with an anger-management coach. I'll give you a hint: this pullover I'm wearing is not home-made.

As she and a couple of staff members chatted about the programs she was involved in and the great strides she was making, it occurred to me that this may well be the most support this woman has enjoyed in a very, very long time, if ever. When I asked her, she agreed she'd never before had an opportunity to work on herself, her education or her mental health without having to scrape to survive in one way or another. The way it came about was horrible, but what was happening in that moment was transformative.

I wasn't expecting that from my visit, but I have to say there were a number of things my research hadn't prepared me for. Call me paranoid, but if a boyfriend of Doreen's had arrived at reception with a gift of knitting needles and a copy of The Great Escape, The Freak would have knocked him into next week.

This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale July 28.

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