Sisters Inside: helping incarcerated women cope in prison and out


Debbie Kilroy outlines what sparked her to found Sisters Inside, an organisation that assists incarcerated women — and those who have been released — to better cope and move forward in life.

I came to this work because of my own prison experiences across 20 years… everything I saw while inside and what I experienced while trying to break free from the criminal injustice system. I was criminalised as a young child and first imprisoned at 13. I spent my subsequent teenage years in and out of prison.

Then in 1989, I was sentenced to 6 years for drug trafficking. It was while I was inside that I witnessed my friend, Debbie Dick, being murdered in the overcrowded (Queensland, Australia) Boggo Road Gaol.

With everything that I saw inside, I grew angrier and angrier – I was angry at the gross injustice and that anger ultimately became a productive force as it spurred a commitment and drive in me to fight against the criminalisation and imprisonment of women and girls.

This drive of mine and the work I came to do was partly to honour my friend, Debbie, but also to honour every woman and girl who had suffered and/or died at the hands of the prison industrial complex.

Sisters Inside: The abolitionist approach

I saw prisons as needless places of suffering and as places of violence. Prisons steal from all of us, and they stole more than just time from me. I lost everything when I went inside – my marriage, my home, my kids and my job. I don’t want them to take anything else from anyone else. I resolved to do something about that.

While I believe I had always been an abolitionist, I am not sure that I always had the language to describe it. However, when we formed Sisters Inside, I wanted to work with all the women in prison — no exceptions.

I knew then that I would have to put my money where my mouth was and walk the talk. This meant I would have to make peace with Storm, the woman who had confessed to killing my friend. I had to recognise that trauma was trauma and that every single person who enacted harm was also a victim of that harm.

I needed to engage Storm in Sisters Inside, and I needed to forgive her. The process of forgiving Storm was a transformative justice approach — a way of resolving conflict and harm without creating more harm without involving agents of the carceral state.  Sisters Inside has truly been founded on that abolitionist basis.

Aims and goals of Sisters Inside

At Sisters Inside we work on a model of community accountability. This is a process whereby we have created a set of shared values that are affirmed through our practices. These values resist abuse and oppression and instead foster safety, support and accountability.

We provide safety and support to our staff and to the women and girls we walk alongside everyday and respect their self-determination. We also work to develop strategies for safe behaviours that are sustainable and allow for accountability and transformative behaviours. All the while, the organisation as a whole works to transform the political, social and environmental conditions to pave a liberatory pathway for our community (our staff, the women and girls, and their families)

Abolitionist principles underlie everything that Sisters Inside does — from the way our organisation manages staff to the way we conduct business in community and through our work with women and girls. Abolition is both a political vision, a way of being, a way of doing and an aspiration for our organisation.

Nuanced views of conflict

In relation to conflict: Sisters Inside takes a deeper and more nuanced view of conflict. The dominant connotation in society is that conflict is inherently bad, but we know that when channelled constructively into processes of resolution, conflict can be productive and indeed beneficial.

Our work is with criminalised women and girls and their families and communities (communities ravaged by police and imprisonment). Often what mainstream organisations regard as conflict with or from women and girls such as those we walk alongside, is actually a woman’s or girls healthy expression of frustration, trauma, anger or grief.

This system is tough. It eats people alive. We know that, so we respect that when people come to us, and may present in what may be termed as confrontational, they may just be struggling.

In all conflict situations, staff at Sisters Inside are reminded that there is both trauma and power/oppression dynamics that inform the situation. This means that who is right and who is wrong is going to be complicated by these dynamics.

We are often taught that there is a wrong and right person in conflict. But when we account for all the layers at play, that binary isn’t clear in all situations. An abolitionist approach that underpins our work at Sisters is to hold space for all of the truths in a situation, including consideration for why the conflict was made possible in the first place.

As staff at Sisters Inside, we are all responsible for changing the conditions around us that make harm possible — and throughout our work we focus on healing and safety for all, thereby preventing conflict, harm and violence from occurring in the first place.

We believe that conflict is not only inevitable, but also essential, because it is an expression of big fault lines and the seed of big changes in activist spaces. At Sisters Inside we believe that conflict must be managed without violence so that it can become a transformative engine of positive change.

We address all harm and conflict without relying on any carceral regime (including police, child welfare, courts, etc). We have never called the police on a woman or girl accessing our services. We haven’t needed to — and we never would — as we use transformative justice practices.

The long path to genuine impact

True community engagement takes time. Most of the criminalised community have been violated for much of their lives, so trust is not something easily gained. We knew that for a representative organisation like Sisters Inside to be effective, genuine community engagement and consultation required time because building genuine relationships, trust, and understanding within the criminalised community was a complex and gradual process.

It was crucial to acknowledge that our prison communities are diverse and comprised of various perspectives, needs, and concerns. Effective engagement involved active listening, involving all groups of women and girls, valuing their input.

Rushing the process could have led to superficial interactions and decisions that may not have accurately represented the community’s desires or addressed their unique challenges. Taking the time to engage with our community ensured all voices were heard and that decisions and the structure of Sisters were more likely to be inclusive and beneficial to all.

This investment in time that we made at the start to get our vision and values correct resulted in greater transparency, accountability, and the development of sustainable, long-lasting organisation that truly reflected the women’s needs and aspirations. The work done in those early days — the sparring, the discussions, the conversations — have all contributed to the robust and brilliant work that Sisters is able to do now.

Overcoming the obstacles, past and present

The challenges and obstacles always came (and continue to come) from the state’s resistance to value lived experience models of advocacy. Since our inception, criminalised women and girls have held genuine power at all levels within Sisters Inside.

Our comprehensive “Values and Vision” were developed with women prisoners over several weekends in 1999 and continue to determine all aspects of our decision-making and functioning.  Consistent with these values, our informal motto is “Nothing about us, without us”.

This distinguishes Sisters Inside from the vast majority of services to criminalised women (with the notable exception of First Nations community-controlled organisations) and is repeatedly cited by women themselves as a critical factor in Sisters Inside’s success.

Developing ‘inclusive support’

At a service delivery level, women drove design of the Inclusive Support model and continue to contribute to its ongoing improvement.  Informal Participatory Action Research with both women and staff is integral to the way we work.

Feedback and ideas from women and girls are fundamental to our service delivery approach and these, along with worker observations and insights, are routinely processed at weekly Inclusive Support meetings. These weekly meetings also gather intelligence on what’s happening inside the carceral system (police watch-houses, women’s prisons, children’s prisons and probation/parole) and allied systems (particularly child ‘protection’) which is fed back to management for possible use in our systemic advocacy work.

At a governance level, our Management Committee is committed to accepting collective feedback and direction from both women prisoners and criminalised women in the community on everything — from operational, to policy, to political, to financial decisions.   The mechanism for gathering this feedback has varied over time — reflecting the constraints of the systems affecting criminalised women.

Currently, a Prisoner Advisory Group functions as a steering committee inside the main Brisbane women’s prison, and actively participates in Management Committee meetings.  However, for several years our Management Committee were not allowed to meet inside the prison and women prisoners’ input had to be gathered using other means.

Similarly, post-release, women are often less able to function in a regular meeting format due to the myriad other demands on their time.  We regularly adjust our mechanisms to optimise the collective input of criminalised women, both inside and outside prisons, within systemic constraints.

Wide range of staff experiences

Some Sisters Inside workers are formerly incarcerated women.  These women are an invaluable resource for other staff, informing us of the best way to do our daily work informed by their experience of prison cultures.   Criminalised women overwhelmingly value the opportunity to engage with these workers, and particularly talk about the importance of having a CEO who is formerly incarcerated to the whole attitude and approach of Sisters Inside.

We also seek to employ staff with other relevant experiences.  About half Sisters Inside’s staff (both workers and managers) are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, and we employ workers from a variety of other cultural backgrounds.  Many staff also have other forms of experience in common with criminalised women, such as experience of poverty, family policing, domestic and family violence, mental health issues and/or substance abuse.

We will continue to do this, in spite of the state and because it is the only way to do our business, because there absolutely should be nothing about us, without us.

Challenges for the future

There are problems now and on the horizon. Now that abolition has become a mainstream political concept, a political vision and the will of the so-called ‘progressive’, we are seeing a watering down of abolition of the prison industrial complex.

We are seeing reformist ideas creeping in as a compromise. We are seeing everyone talking about prisons and policing, but a widespread silencing and erasure of the voices of those who are or have been incarcerated.

We are seeing so called left-wing or ‘progressive’ organisations remaining reliant on carceral responses to almost everything, whether that be in their conflict resolution processes or their surveillance of women and girls, or in their lobbying (eg: carceral feminists call for criminalising coercive control).  We are seeing white progressives who are unable and unwilling to acknowledge their own racism meaning they cannot see the conflict they are creating by their mere presence in certain spaces.

One of those concerning spaces is in the trade union movement. For a progressive movement in a left-wing space, we see very little work being done to address the persistent violence being perpetrated from the carceral state. In fact, what we see is collusion and protection, in the form of legal and political protection.

As an example, in the coronial inquest into the prison killing of Wayne Fella Morrison, we saw one of the lawyers representing some of the more high-profile prison officers in the case being paid $20,000 a day. If you consider that the officers have around 2 to 3 QCs on the case, that’s around $60,000 a day minimum on legal salaries being paid on the officer’s behalf. We know a large portion of that money is coming from the union. The so-called left wing progressive public sector union defending the officers that are killing Blak men in prison, but in the next breath, claiming to be progressive in relation to prison politics. It’s problematic, but worse, its deadly.

Pushing for a just society

At Sisters Inside we are committed to changing the unjust social structure in this country. We know that the liberation of us all, will only come when each of us are liberated from the bonds that bind us.

We recognise that the level of change required to achieve a just society is substantial, and that change toward this end will be slow and arduous. At Sisters we relentlessly pursue issues of injustice perpetrated against all women and girls, especially women and girls in prison and elsewhere in the criminal punishment system.

We recognise that social change may come at a cost and are therefore committed to making strategic decisions and taking risks to fight for issues that the organisation feels strongly about. This has, of course, had implications for us as an organisation, and we continue to bear the brunt of the carceral system’s rage — and will continue to — in order to stay true to our vision and purpose.

Funding hurdles

Therefore, another issue relates to funding. The work we do, and the way we operate is not popular. We run straight, we pull no punches and we say it as it is. This often makes us very unpopular with governments and funders. But we make no apologies for that. Lives are at stakes.

However, attracting funding for a prison abolitionist organization that is highly critical of the government can be an arduous endeavour. We campaign for substantial systemic change and challenge the status quo, making us unpopular in the eyes of those who hold the purse strings.

Government bodies and individuals with influence often view us with suspicion (and rightly so), fearing that our objectives undermine the existing power structures (as they should, because we do). Consequently, obtaining financial support becomes a formidable task, because funders sometimes hesitate to align themselves with organizations that question the very institutions they support.

In a climate where the government plays a pivotal role in funding and oversight, prison abolitionist organizations like ours must navigate a complex landscape, relying on grassroots support, innovative fundraising strategies, and partnerships with like-minded individuals and organizations who share our vision for a safer world.

Vision for the future

Our vision is that our organisation will cease to exist in the future. We are abolitionists, so we are working to abolish all systems of carceral control and punishment, therefore an organisation like ours should not be necessary at all. We are working to free us all. We are working to make our jobs extinct.

Debbie Kilroy

Debbie Kilroy is the founder and CEO of the organisation, Sisters Inside, based in Queensland, Australia.

Main image by Andrea Piacquadio

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