GUEST EDITORIAL: WE NEED TO BE HONEST AND OPEN TO BREAK DOWN STEREOTYPES
Kat Armstrong spent almost 10 years in prison. She co-founded the Women in Prison Advocacy Network (WIPAN) in April 2008 and is now its President & Public Officer. WIPAN works to advance the well-being and prospects of women and young girls affected by the criminal justice system. It is a grassroots NGO that employs women who are consistently knocked back from jobs due to a criminal record. Kat is about to complete a Graduate Practicing Diploma, the last hurdle to needed to apply for a practicing certificate as a lawyer in NSW.
When I first went to prison aged 19, I was very sick, withdrawing from heroin and concerned about being in jail. Being the survivor I am, I soon adapted and became good friends with some of the other women. I survived through the friendships I formed and I’m still close to some of those women. I went on to spend 24 more years of my life drug dependent, committing crime and wasting too many years in jail.
Today could not be more different. Having worked my arse off getting to where I am, I hope others can change their lives too if they can access the support I did. My driving focus is helping other women who need a hand to change their lives. I work as hard as I can to give back to my community and to help other women who have been in prison and become criminalised due to drug use.
The last time I got out, I was on a methadone program and I slowly reduced down from it over two years, and didn’t use during that time. What made the difference was having someone who walked beside me and who believed in me, even though I didn’t believe in myself. I did trauma counselling and healing sessions, and got rid of a lot of trauma I was carrying from my childhood and early teenage years that led me to use in the way I did in the first place. I had a couple of one-off uses, but I’ve mostly not used for over a decade.
I started channelling my negative, angry and traumatic self into positive, loving and selfless work for other women and youth that are and always will be my community. Having a passion helped me to not think about using. I threw myself into working 10-12 hour days and mentoring other women.
I plan over this next year to try to create a legal hub or social enterprise as a part of WIPAN’s work. Even when women or girls are released from jail, they still have multiple legal issues, particularly family restoration, tenancy tribunal and debt issues. In many instances, it is because of these ongoing issues, and their inability to source legal assistance, that leads them back to self-medicating. They then reoffend to support their addiction and return to prison.
We need to educate our community about substance use. This is a health issue, although it leads to so many people becoming criminalised. I’m passionate about harm reduction.
I contracted hep C when I was in prison because I shared a syringe with others - the only time I shared injecting equipment. Later, I learnt about blood borne viruses through a NUAA peer education course, prompting me to get tested. I learned it was important to get tested and treated because with hep C you might not have symptoms early on, but it can be life threatening as you get older.
Thankfully, I’m one of those people that cleared the virus spontaneously - one of the lucky ones. But I keep spreading the message to people who inject drugs: don’t share injecting equipment because it can mean your life. You can be an injecting drug user without putting your life and the lives of others at risk.
So many of the women that WIPAN walk beside without judgement or bias use illegal drugs to self medicate due to having experienced extreme trauma. These women deserve to become contributing members of our community. We need to be open and honest to break down the stereotypes. That’s why I tell my story.