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Charity helps to reintegrate women prisoners

Equipping inmates: Denae Burchall, a Women’s Resource Centre programme co-ordinator, left, Tina Laws, of Tina Laws Consulting, and Elaine Butterfield, executive director of the Women’s Resource Centre (Photograph by Akil Simmons).

A charity took its support sessions behind bars to help women in prison learn how to cope with life outside.

The Women’s Resource Centre teamed up with Tina Laws Consulting to deliver their first programme designed to equip inmates with the skills and confidence to pick up their lives again.

A 33-year-old, now released after eight months in jail for conspiracy to import drugs, said the workshops had helped her consider how she would approach difficult situations after her release.

She explained: “One of my things was not what people would think but just rolling back into society.

“My biggest thing was applying for jobs and having to explain my past, nobody wants to go to a job interview and say ‘I got incarcerated’.

“The programme helped me to tackle that issue if it came up in an interview and how to accept it a little more easily.”

The woman, who asked not to be named, added: “One of the tools I learnt was how to correctly approach it, instead of going in a shell or getting offended, so it helped me to be confident about how I would actually answer it.”

The woman was reluctant to become involved in the group at first but soon settled in.

She explained: “Initially, I was not really interested in talking to people, period.

“Once I got there and found out that they were really here to help me and that they cared, it was a little easier.

“It also helped that the other ladies were receptive to it too, it helped me feel more comfortable.”

Elaine Butterfield, the WRC’s executive director, said: “Our new direction is about empowering women — it’s a preventive rather than a crisis- management approach.

“What we’re trying to do is encourage women and support them through life choices that prevent them from getting into situations.

“Empowering women includes the women who are incarcerated because when they are released they have the uphill battle of becoming sustainable in a society that doesn’t readily accept who they are.

“We’re trying to support them through that process but also trying to destroy that stigma that’s attached to a very productive individual who now has been rehabilitated and, through this programme, has explored how to make better life choices.”

She added: “Many women who have been incarcerated are very talented, brilliant women who made poor choices and they’ve paid for it by being incarcerated.

“As a society, unfortunately we feel we have to continue to punish them.”

The WRC approached the Co-Ed facility to offer the programme from last October to December in partnership with Ms Laws, a relationship coach who the charity had worked with before.

Inmates were told the group sessions would provide them with the chance to develop coping skills to help during their time in prison.

The project was also designed to provide information that would help the women integrate back into society “seamlessly”.

Denae Burchall, a WRC programme co-ordinator, said the group was made up of six prisoners and although the tutors had topics they wanted to cover, such as communication skills and relationships, the sessions were guided by the needs of those taking part.

Women were encouraged to discuss their concerns or interests and to offer suggestions on topics they would like to discuss.

Ms Laws, a former prison case manager, was aware of the challenges often faced during jail terms.

She said: “One of the things is the stigma attached to being incarcerated — and not always necessarily with the public or the population. It’s the actual inmates’ perception as to what others may think.

“Our role in this is to get them to build their confidence up enough to let them come out and know, ‘I can do this, that’s my past, I did what I did and now I’m going to move forward’.”

Ms Laws said sessions, which could last up to two-and-a-half hours, also covered relationships with family and friends and advised the women on how to reassure people that they had changed.

The sessions also used role play, note-writing or list-making and inmates were asked to take away information or guidance to refer to later.

The project was also designed to assist women with significant stretches in prison ahead of them, although those found most suitable for participation by the Department of Corrections were close to their release dates.

The WRC, which moved to its new premises at Sofia House on Church Street in Hamilton earlier this month, hopes to continue the programme and plans to meet Co-Ed representatives soon to review its first run.

The Department of Corrections Co-Ed facility said that Lloyquita Symonds, a social worker, and Karla Parfitt, a case manager, worked with the course organisers.

The department added: “Although it may be too early in the process to determine all the benefits of the programme, the initial feedback from participants and staff indicate that Life After Incarceration is beneficial for the incarcerated women returning to the community.”