Women are going to prison at a higher rate than ever, and at least one in two imprisoned women in Australia has a history of mental illness, and/or abuse as a child. One in two imprisoned women are mothers, and 5 per cent to 10 per cent are pregnant. They desperately want to be with their babies and young children, few of whom will be cared for by their fathers.
Indigenous women are over-represented in prisons. They make up only 3 per cent of our female population as a whole but account for more than one-third of Australia’s female prisoner population. The majority of Aboriginal women in prison, more than 80 per cent, are mothers.
Miruma is a traditional Wanaruah word meaning “to take care of, to protect and keep from harm”. It is also the name given to the court-ordered diversionary program for female offenders at the Cessnock Correctional Complex.
Established in 2011, the program is available to female offenders with a diagnosed mental illness and drug dependency who require extra support to live a law-abiding lifestyle in the community. About 50 women participate in the intensive three-to-six month program each year.
Miruma acting manager Crystal Duncan says the program is tailor-designed to meet each resident’s needs.
“Our case management is holistic and specific,” Ms Duncan said. “It goes beyond addressing their offending behaviour and mental health. It covers many aspects including general healthcare, trauma counselling and living skills.
“The through-care we provide is crucial. It includes Justice Health organising discharge medications and follow-up community treatment for residents a month before they’re discharged from the program.”
Ms Duncan says a significant component of the Miruma program is the relationships developed with community-based agencies that provide support for the residents. One such agency is Mums’ Cottage.
Sister Helen Anne founded the Holmesville-based Mums’ Cottage about seven years ago out of the necessity to support mothers in an ever-changing society. Mums’ Cottage uses companionship to empower women, especially those in crisis.
One of its aims is to hold together the family structure, which is where its work with Miruma is so important.
The Australia Bureau Statistics reports that over the past five years to the March quarter this year the number of females in custody in Australia increased by 38 per cent or 1004 persons. For the March quarter 2019, the average daily imprisonment rate for females was 36 per 100,000 of the adult female population.
Professor Elizabeth Sullivan is deputy head of the Faculty of Health and Medicine at the University of Newcastle, research lead of Custodial Health within the NSW Justice Health and Forensic Mental Health Network and Fellow of the Australasian Faculty of Public Health Medicine.
She describes the increasing number of children behind bars as a silent epidemic.
“Prisons aren’t intended or equipped to enable young children to thrive,” Professor Sullivan said. “Keeping mothers and their babies together is a good thing, but we could do it better.”
Miruma’s 11-bed residential diversionary program in Cessnock provides the opportunity for women who may be experiencing difficulties in adjusting to lawful community life, to gain stability by way of enhanced supervision. This is facilitated by referral to and liaison with various community agencies including alcohol and other drug services, residential rehabilitation programs, Centrelink, TAFE NSW and Housing NSW. Promotion of life skills including budgeting, nutrition and general healthcare are a focus of the program.
“Miruma and Mums’ Cottage have worked closely together since the inception of the program in 2011,” Ms Duncan said. “A current resident told us that by attending Mums’ Cottage she feels welcome and supported, giving her a second chance to be the real woman that she can be in the community.
“One of our staff members says the women who run Mums’ Cottage provide a non-judgmental, supportive and mentoring role to our residents. They especially enjoy the cakes the ladies make for them.
“Miruma staff and residents would like to take the opportunity to thank all involved in Mums’ Cottage for all they do for our residents and we look forward to continuing the great partnership.”