Jen, LEAP member

"If I can just change the experience of one woman relating to health care, I'm happy with that."

In 2013 I was sentenced to 12 months incarceration with a four month non parole period. The whole time I was committing my crime, I knew it was wrong. I had a number of medical issues that weren’t covered under Medicare, my daughter has epilepsy and Type 1 diabetes and was on four different types of medications. The healthcare costs were killing me. I was a single Mum working full-time and I still couldn’t afford the medications. I’m not trying to justify what I did, but it was one of the reasons. When I finally got caught, I cried with relief, I thought ‘now I can be punished for what I did’ because I was living with the guilt.

When I arrived at Dame Phyllis Frost Centre, I was given an initial medical assessment. I was on medication for arthritis, sleep apnoea, hypertension, diabetes and antidepressants for depression, anxiety, stress, but I couldn’t remember the doses. The doctor yelled and made me cry. I didn’t receive any medications for the first week, then they put me on my diabetes medication, but nothing else. My blood pressure was high, and I was suffering headaches. A psychiatrist saw me for all of 5-10 minutes and said ‘there is nothing wrong with you, out you go’. The help I needed just wasn’t available. I was scared and frightened but my mindset at the time was, well, you broke the law, suck it up, princess. Never once was I told that I had any rights to complain. It was traumatic.

I ended up doing some education in the prison – a Cert 2 in Adult Education and the teacher there was lovely. The day before I was released, she said ‘if you don’t go on to University, I’m going to be very upset with you’. So, she planted a seed.

After my release I began studying a Bachelor of Humanities and Social Sciences, and I did one criminal justice subject; I aced it and got a High Distinction. I then swapped to a degree in Criminal Justice and got HDs throughout the whole program; but it wasn’t until I did a human rights subject that the penny really dropped. When I was in prison, I didn’t know my rights, and so many women don’t. I went on to do my Honours degree and my thesis was on women’s healthcare during incarceration and included my story. I got first class honours and thought, ‘just keep going’. I’m now almost finished with my PhD and tutoring at Uni as well.

If I can just change the experience of one woman relating to health care, I’m happy with that. My goal is to raise the voices of women in prison, women like me who don’t stand up for themselves because they’re too scared.

In prison you have women with high levels of previous life trauma and mental health issues, but there are long waiting lists for programs and assistance. Also, women are often sentenced for short periods, so you might be released before help becomes available and then you have trauma from your incarceration so it’s [compounded]. Some women may also not be eligible for post-release support which creates a real risk of health issues escalating and getting worse.

Crime policy has now moved away from being a welfare state, to a more punitive state. More women are being caught up in the criminal justice system for crimes that really should not be. Women shouldn’t be going to prison for not being able to pay their fines. I’m not a total abolitionist, but I think there could be more programs to divert women away from prison in the first place. You also need to acknowledge other factors that can contribute to women committing crime; socio-economic disadvantage, poor health, etc. It’s not a level playing field. For me it was not being able to afford health care, family dysfunction, and stress from previous life trauma and abuse. 

For many people, having that prison experience can be really negative, but for me it was life changing; it’s opened up so many doors, but it’s really important to acknowledge that I am one of the exceptions.