Life after prison: meet the women get­ting a new start

Get­ting out of prison does not al­ways mean the end of do­ing time, as there is a high per­cent­age of re­of­fend­ing. Annah Stretton and her sis­ter Re­becca Skilton are work­ing to re­duce these sta­tis­tics by of­fer­ing women pris­on­ers the support to start life afre


Close your eyes and imag­ine go­ing to prison. You’ll likely think about the bars, a cold cell, and be­ing locked away from fam­ily, friends and the com­forts of free­dom. It’s un­likely you’ll sum­mon a pleas­ant scene, let alone imag­ine re­turn­ing more than once – yet al­most half of the women im­pris­oned in New Zealand are con­victed again within two years of re­lease.

Woman like Ina Pick­er­ing, a 36-year-old mother-of-four, who has been to jail seven times. Each time she was re­leased from prison she re­turned to the same life she had al­ways known.

“I would only have the $350 ‘steps to free­dom’ pay­ment, which you walk out of prison with – and that doesn’t go far. Then you have a two-week stand down un­til your ben­e­fit starts. With nowhere to live, that meant buy­ing drugs, then sell­ing drugs to make money. Then if that didn’t work, I’d have sex for money.”

In­evitably she would re­turn to liv­ing en­vi­ron­ments where her habit was the norm. “The peo­ple that were open to tak­ing me in were the ones that sup­ported the habit be­cause I was able to support their habit as well,” Ina ad­mits.

It was sto­ries like this that led de­signer Annah Stretton and her sis­ter Re­becca Skilton, a reg­is­tered nurse with 25 years of ex­pe­ri­ence work­ing in men­tal health, to set up a new fo­cus for their Re­claim An­other Woman (RAW) or­gan­i­sa­tion.

RAW now aims to re­duce re­of­fend­ing by plac­ing women com­ing out of prison in in­cu­ba­tor hous­ing, away from stress and dis­rup­tion, where they re­ceive in­ten­sive support to build the foun­da­tions for a crime­free life.

The first place­ment was in March 2015 and there are now four in­cu­ba­tor res­i­dences oper­at­ing in Annah and Re­becca’s home­town of Hamil­ton, ac­com­mo­dat­ing 12 women. Of those 12, 11 are study­ing and one is now in paid em­ploy­ment.

When it be­gan, RAW matched do­mes­tic abuse suf­fer­ers with suc­cess­ful women in the com­mu­nity, with the aim of sup­port­ing them to get an ed­u­ca­tion and cre­ate a new life away from abuse. From that orig­i­nal model Annah and Re­becca found they needed a more con­trolled and in­ten­sive sys­tem of re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion if they were to suc­ceed in their goal of in­ter­rupt­ing the cy­cle of vi­o­lence and crime ex­pe­ri­enced by vul­ner­a­ble New Zealand women.

“The women [in the first scheme] were still at a point of cri­sis and liv­ing in on­go­ing dif­fi­cult dys­func­tional en­vi­ron­ments, and com­mit­ment to growth was not a pri­or­ity or a re­al­is­tic re­al­ity,” ex­plains Re­becca.

From there the duo changed di­rec­tion and cre­ated the in­cu­ba­tor hous­ing model for women com­ing out of prison. The pro­gramme re­quires ro­bust com­mit­ment from the par­tic­i­pants, who Re­becca works with for at least six months before their pa­role hear­ing. Dur­ing that time she cre­ates a re­la­tion­ship of trust, in which she de­vel­ops an un­der­stand­ing of the personal chal­lenges they may face on re­lease.

“Part of the cri­te­ria is they are not from Hamil­ton,” says Re­becca. “They agree to re­lo­cate here and not to have any con­tact with their old as­so­ciates. They agree ini­tially to come to us for a year with­out their part­ners and chil­dren, so part of that process is en­sur­ing their chil­dren are in a set­tled place for the year.”

They need to be busy and ed­u­ca­tion is our vi­sion.

Left: RAW co-founder Re­becca Skilton. Op­po­site page: Ina Pick­er­ing, who is mak­ing a new life for her­self as a hair­dresser through the scheme.

That con­di­tion is based on the no­tion that the women need time to fo­cus on a crime-free path before they take on the re­spon­si­bil­ity of their chil­dren again.

RAW also of­fers support be­yond that ini­tial year – to help with such things as fin­ish­ing their study, mov­ing into paid em­ploy­ment and into their own homes with their chil­dren. Re­becca says the long-term vi­sion is to cre­ate an alum­nus of women who support each other in their new lives.

It’s an idea al­ready oper­at­ing in the in­cu­ba­tor homes, where women at dif­fer­ent pe­ri­ods of re­lease in­spire new­com­ers – both by show­ing them what life can look like fur­ther down the track and help­ing them through the ini­tial pe­riod of ad­just­ment by shar­ing their own ex­pe­ri­ences.

“If you are bring­ing a woman into a house with three other women who are eight, nine months on, we find the new woman will in­te­grate more seam­lessly,” says Re­becca. “The ones who have been there longer are sup­port­ive and are grasp­ing that pay-it-forward ap­proach.

“I know it is a con­cern, putting peo­ple with a group of con­vic­tions to­gether, but it’s a diplo­matic dance and we are struc­tur­ing them sen­si­bly. It is more ef­fec­tive than harm­ful.”

The first three months in the home have proved the most dif­fi­cult for women, as they set­tle into the new life and fight old temp­ta­tions and habits.

“For the first 12 weeks there is a cur­few, no so­cial me­dia and no unau­tho­rised con­tact with any­one,” ex­plains Re­becca. “Fam­ily con­tact is at our dis­cre­tion. We need to meet who­ever they are hav­ing con­tact with and it is pos­i­tive con­tacts only. There is gen­er­ally only sup­ported leave in the first 12 weeks, so if there is a se­ri­ous in­ci­dent that a woman does need to go back to we will support them rather than let­ting them go back on their own.”

The rules are strict but deemed

I didn’t know what to ex­pect but I got a good feel­ing from Re­becca.

nec­es­sary for the pro­gramme to work. There have been four peo­ple who have left the pro­gramme and in re­sponse the 12-week rules were made tougher to re­duce the risk of newly re­leased women be­ing dis­tracted by old habits and as­so­ciates.

Changes have also been made to en­try cri­te­ria. Three of the four women who left the pro­gramme were on straight re­lease (no pa­role con­di­tions). RAW now only takes women on pa­role, which they be­lieve pro­vides greater in­cen­tives. It also only ac­cepts women be­ing re­leased around the months of Jan­uary and July, so they can move into an ed­u­ca­tion pro­gramme quickly.

“Rou­tine and struc­ture are im­por­tant – they need to be busy, and ed­u­ca­tion is our vi­sion. We have schol­ar­ships through Win­tec and the uni­ver­sity. The path­ways they want to take are al­ready es­tab­lished, so we en­rol them in study as soon as they are out and they just get into a rou­tine of tech, their pro­ba­tion and treat­ment re­quire­ments and work­ing at the In Ex­cess shop [a second-hand store set up for RAW women to run].”

Fi­nan­cially, the women’s ba­sic needs are taken care of. They hand over their ben­e­fits to RAW and their food, shel­ter, cloth­ing and course fees are paid. Fund­ing for the pro­gramme also comes from do­na­tions and in­de­pen­dent in­vestors. This takes away fi­nan­cial pres­sures but means

some ad­just­ment for women who are used to hav­ing a lot of money through crime.

Auck­land Re­gion Women’s Cor­rec­tions Fa­cil­ity man­ager Ch­eryl Mikaere says the pro­gramme came at a time when she was des­per­ate for help. “I have spo­ken at com­mu­nity fo­rums since 2013, so­cial­is­ing our depart­men­tal goal of re­duc­ing re­of­fend­ing by 25 per cent by 2017 and em­pha­sis­ing ‘I need your help, I can­not do it on my own’. Along came RAW.

“The progress I have seen in the women is the light in their eyes, the smile on their face and the ko­rero com­ing from their mouths – some­body be­lieves in them. Our wahine ad­mit that with­out the support of RAW they would most likely have been on the road back to re­of­fend­ing. Yet they are at­tend­ing Win­tec and uni­ver­sity and are pur­pose­fully em­ployed.

“We be­gan with very mod­est num­bers of seven on the RAW books. The num­bers have in­creased to 50 [in prison await­ing re­lease].”


Ina Pick­er­ing is a kindly spo­ken woman, study­ing hair­dress­ing. She is ex­cited about her fu­ture, wells up with tears when she talks about spend­ing time with her chil­dren, and gig­gles when she is com­pli­mented.

She is happy now, but life hasn’t been kind to the 36-year-old, who suf­fered re­cur­rent sex­ual abuse as a child.

“At 15, I was run­ning away and be­came an al­co­holic to try and numb the pain. I ended up so­lic­it­ing to make ends meet. By 19 I gave birth to the first of four chil­dren, all of them even­tu­ally taken into CYF’s care. I’ve been for­tu­nate that CYFs gave me a choice about their care­givers and all are safe and do­ing well.”

Ina, who has been to prison seven times for fraud and bur­glary, says go­ing to prison was a “bless­ing in dis­guise” be­cause she was able to break her habit.

“On al­co­hol I’d reg­u­larly black out, so even­tu­ally l turned to meth to stay alert. In­creas­ingly I com­mit­ted crime to fuel my ad­dic­tion. Prison has been the only time in my adult life when I have been sober for long pe­ri­ods of time. On re­turn to prison for the sev­enth time I went back to the DTU (Drug Treat­ment Unit). I knew I had a prob­lem, knew I needed to change, and knew only I could do it for my­self.”

She heard about RAW from other

I am in a re­ally good space now and I love ev­ery­thing I have.

Left: A house of new be­gin­nings – one of RAW’s in­cu­ba­tor homes. Op­po­site page: Gina, the first woman to join the scheme, now gives back to the com­mu­nity. in­mates. “The men­tor­ing, support, ev­ery­thing was ex­actly what I needed. I hadn’t had any re­ally pos­i­tive support in my life before.”

The in­cu­ba­tor home pro­vided a very dif­fer­ent prospect to Ina’s pre­vi­ous re­leases. “Com­ing into a safe, drugfree en­vi­ron­ment, hav­ing no fi­nan­cial stress, be­ing ac­cepted and sup­ported re­gard­less of my past was key for me be­cause it is not the kind of re­sponse you get from so­ci­ety. Some­times you just don’t bother [try­ing] be­cause you know peo­ple wouldn’t bother with you be­cause of your his­tory.”

She says the first 12 weeks in the in­cu­ba­tor home were dif­fi­cult – she’d never had to ask for any­thing before, so hav­ing some­one else con­trol her fi­nances was dif­fi­cult.

Rou­tine, work­ing at In Ex­cess and go­ing to AA got her through. As did a sig­nif­i­cant visit. “I got a visit from my mum and three daugh­ters and for them to see me in this en­vi­ron­ment and straight and clean was just huge.”

Ina has three daugh­ters (15, 13 and eight) who live with her mother, and a five-year-old son who lives with an­other fam­ily mem­ber. She is now see­ing her son reg­u­larly once a fort­night, a devel­op­ment she is de­lighted with.

“Ev­ery time I had tried to see them in the past I was still us­ing and I was un­re­li­able, and I would come into their space and dis­rupt them and they would be­come un­set­tled – I wanted to be there, but I wasn’t there be­cause I was still on drugs.”

It has taken her son un­til very re­cently to get ex­cited about the vis­its. “Up un­til then he would come into prison and re­hab and be stand-off­ish and re­served but last week­end he was

over the moon to see me – he trusts I am go­ing to be there. It’s ab­so­lutely amaz­ing – it has taken a long time but it has hap­pened,” she says, her eyes fill­ing with tears. “I am in a re­ally good space now and I love ev­ery­thing that I have in my life.”

Her long-term goal is to have her son full time and to earn the trust of her mother so she can have her daugh­ters on the week­ends. “I un­der­stand her dis­tance – I just need to be pa­tient be­cause she is do­ing it with the girls’ best in­ter­ests in mind,” says Ina.

In the short term she plans to com­plete her two-year de­gree and be­come a hair­dresser. “The ed­u­ca­tion has been the best part for me. I would like to have my own sa­lon and I want it to be booked out two weeks to one month in ad­vance, be­cause I am go­ing to be that good at it!” she says.


Gina wasn’t avail­able to meet with RAW when they first came to visit

– she was at the Auck­land District Court, where she worked most days in the cafe­te­ria. Gina wasn’t afraid of hard work, she wasn’t afraid of prison ei­ther – her big­gest fear was be­ing re­leased back to the same en­vi­ron­ment she had come from.

“The pa­role board look at whether you have a suit­able ad­dress, where you are go­ing to go and what you are go­ing to do when you get out, and I didn’t have any­thing suit­able – all I had was the same place I had been my whole life.”

The 49-year-old says de­spite her mo­ti­va­tion to cre­ate a bet­ter life, the first time she was re­leased – be­ing paroled to her par­ent’s home – meant re­turn­ing to the same neigh­bour­hood she’d spent most of her life in. It was an area where her old as­so­ciates lived (she acted as the mid­dle woman be­tween sup­pli­ers and drug deal­ers) and a place where she was known as a crim­i­nal. She was also re­turn­ing to a dys­func­tional en­vi­ron­ment.

She felt she was bur­den­ing her par­ents fi­nan­cially, and felt guilty about the af­fect her ab­sence had had on her chil­dren. A stand-down pe­riod from the ben­e­fit made con­tribut­ing fi­nan­cially im­pos­si­ble and pa­role re­stric­tions meant she couldn’t work. When she was ap­proached by old as­so­ciates to work for them again, she says the money and in­de­pen­dence proved too hard to re­sist.

“Es­pe­cially if you’ve got no in­come, a whole lot of fi­nan­cial is­sues go­ing on and you are try­ing to buy your kids’ [re­spect] be­cause you are try­ing to make it bet­ter. It didn’t – it ac­tu­ally did more dam­age be­cause I was sent back to jail.”

On re­lease from her second sen­tence, she wanted some­thing dif­fer­ent and saw in RAW the support she needed.

“I was the first one [to join the pro­gramme]. I didn’t know what to ex­pect but I got a good feel­ing from Re­becca, I was re­laxed with her – she knew my his­tory and I didn’t have to pre­tend I was some­thing I am not.”

Un­der RAW she was of­fered the prac­ti­cal support she needed to set up a crime-free life. “There were two of us re­leased on the same day and we were taken into WINZ, we were given bank ac­counts. Within the first week I could legally drive and present a li­cence. That was a good feel­ing – that gave me con­fi­dence and made me feel like I had se­cu­rity.”

As the in­au­gu­ral mem­ber, Gina helped es­tab­lish the rules in the house. “I think the more rules the bet­ter, be­cause it will pro­tect ev­ery­one. When the new ones com­ing through say to me, ‘The rules are so hard,’ I say, ‘You want some­thing dif­fer­ent, you have got to do some­thing dif­fer­ent.’”

She works for RAW 30 hours a week and hap­pily vol­un­teers her time in the com­mu­nity. “With­out RAW I wouldn’t have had em­ploy­ment. So­ci­ety just doesn’t want to know you once you have a crim­i­nal his­tory – it’s just so hard to get peo­ple to give you a chance, you are kind of scarred for life.

“I love work­ing. I love con­tribut­ing back to the com­mu­nity. It feels so much bet­ter than rob­bing. When I stood in that dock and was sen­tenced, there was a lot of guilt. I know how much it de­stroys fam­i­lies; it doesn’t mat­ter which end of the chain you are at. You’ve been a cost to the com­mu­nity and are now ask­ing for support and it’s great to be able to give back.”

She is now reg­u­larly see­ing her sons, who are 17 and 21, and her el­dest has come to live with her.

“I’m look­ing forward to hav­ing the boys and watch­ing them grow. They want some­thing dif­fer­ent and I can give them some­thing dif­fer­ent now. And it is not money, it is time and guid­ance.”

I love work­ing. It feels so much bet­ter than rob­bing.”

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