As part of National Volunteer Week, we wanted to share this piece written by volunteer Trish McBride on her experience of seeing how the Drug Treatment Programme at Arohata Prison helps women change their lives for the better.
Trish is an internationally published writer and retired counsellor. She describes herself as passionate about social justice, particularly women's well-being. In 2018, she joined the Arohata Toastmasters team who have been offering this programme for eight years. Trish also spent 26 years as chaplain in various contexts, including 18 years in mental health.
Thank you Trish – and all our Toastmasters volunteers – for your mahi and support.
Hope and Healing in Prison
by Trish McBride
The late Cec Lashlie would have nodded and said “Yes, I told you that prison could be the making of women because it is often the first time that they have been safe and nurtured.”
At Arohata Prison near Wellington there is a special programme in operation which amply proves her point. It is the Drug Treatment Programme (DTP). Groups of about 10 women at a time are selected for the programme which lasts for three months. The times overlap – Group 1 begins in the programme as Group 2 begins the 6 weeks leading up to their graduation. During the programme, beyond the support from Corrections officers, chaplains and other staff, they have intensive therapy, and input and support from a range of volunteers. The women apply to do the course from other prisons as well as Arohata. It used to be a six-month course, but since 2011 women have asked for the shorter time to avoid being away from their whanau/families as long. The same amount of face to face treatment is still being delivered in this time-frame.
This drug treatment unit (DTU) was established in Arohata Prison in 1999, to be delivered in partnership with Care NZ. Its establishment was part of Corrections’ first Alcohol and Other Drug (AOD) Strategy. There are now 11 specialist DTUs in various NZ prisons. AOD treatment and follow-up support are high on the Department’s agenda. Some 60% of community-based offenders have an identified alcohol and other drug issue and 87% of prisoners have experienced problems with alcohol and drugs over their lifetime.
The programme at Arohata is supported by a number of volunteers who are all inspired by the transformations they see in the women. As well as doing personal and group therapy, they learn yoga, quilting (and finish a quilt to take home), attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings working through the 12-step programme, experience the Catholic-based grief programme Seasons for Growth, and learn public speaking skills at the fortnightly Toastmasters meeting. This is where I’ve recently been privileged to fit in. The three people I’ve joined have been offering this programme for over eight years.
There’s a wise saying about ‘hearing people into speech’, and this is what we do at Toastmasters. We coach all members of the combined groups in both listening and speaking, as well as in managing formal meeting procedures. The Toastmasters dynamics work even for the shyest and most nervous, as they do in the outside world. Lots of praise and encouragement, and perhaps a suggestion towards developing the next speech. It is a delight to see the women gaining in confidence and skills over the three months. They are always so grateful for the time we spend there, and really enjoy having a Corrections officer or two present at the meetings, and they value seeing a different side to their charges.
In the speeches, usually 3-5 minutes long, the women may tell heart-breaking stories of horrendous sexual abuse, violence, gang affiliation and homelessness, then self-medicating with alcohol or drugs to ease the pain, leading to their offending, and so to prison. Some will begin speaking in te reo with their mihi. They may give well-researched self-help speeches on topics like co-dependence and social anxiety. We hear stories of faithfully supportive families, the children they will be going home to as better mums, their hopes and plans for after release. There are the inspirational speeches, the significant talents and wisdom now freer to emerge. And sometimes hugely funny speeches have all of us laughing uproariously. Letters of farewell to the drugs that had both sustained and captured them are very moving.
The culmination of their course learning comes at the six-weekly graduation ceremonies. Volunteers, staff and clinical people are welcomed onto what is their marae for the occasion by some rousing kapa haka. Wonderful energy, style and mana! Group 1 chooses one of their number to lead the occasion. This woman welcomes the manuhiri - volunteers and others - by their contribution or role, often initially in te reo, and then in what they call te reo pākehā. She addresses her own group, then those graduating. A recent speaker included these words (quoted with her permission):
He Wāhine, He Wāhine toa
On behalf of Group 1, we thank you for allowing us the insight and
privilege of seeing your journey, for walking beside us as we began ours,
for imparting all your wisdom and knowledge to each and every one of
us, for all your support.
You are all true role models and leaders, which leaves really big boots to
We wish you the best of luck when you leave, and courage as you
further put your learning into practice.
Choose to live by choice, not chance.
Choose to be motivated, not manipulated.
Choose to be useful, not used.
Choose to make changes not excuses.
Choose to excel, not compete.
Choose self-esteem not self-pity.
Choose to listen to your inner voice, not to the random opinion of others.
Remember knowing is not enough, for we must apply it. Wishing is not
enough, for we must do!
She then calls on those graduating strong women, wāhine toa, to each give a speech. A brief introductory karakia is not unusual. Some general themes are heartfelt gratitude to Corrections officers for their respect and compassion, to therapists and each group of volunteers; their learnings from the programme; their new self-respect, and hopes and intentions for the future. They are grateful to each other for the love and nurture they have shared as a group. Every single speech is inspirational, particularly with the increased confidence that is so observable from when we first met them. Most actually look different, softer, more relaxed, and much more in touch with their own self-hood, with plans for a good clean, sober future. Boxes of tissues are supplied and frequently used both by the graduates and by the visitors. They receive their certificates from the clinical people and thank them with big hugs. Those relationships have been hugely significant.
Then others are invited to speak. The Corrections officers are impressive in the compassion that has obviously been shown within their duty of care. At one celebration an officer did an impressive rap performance with one of the women. Volunteer representatives respond. Group 1, who are now to become Group 2 themselves, speak appreciatively of the love, guidance and nurture they have been given by the graduating Group 2 women.
To conclude, there are more waiata, including a sung version of the AA Serenity Prayer: in both te reo and English:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
Then kai is blessed and shared.
Each graduation ceremony has its own flavour as each group has developed its own way of being together. Transformation metaphors spring to mind: we see tight buds opening out to beautiful flowers, formerly earthbound caterpillars stretching their wings after their chrysalis confinement, Easter resurrections out of terrible pain, New Life for spirits that had been crushed into hopelessness.
In real terms, they are not all going to make it this time. A few don’t make it as far as graduation before being taken off the programme. Each group usually has one or two going through for the second time. They can apply again to do or repeat the programme if they meet the eligibility criteria, i.e., have a moderate-to-high or high level of need for AOD treatment, are assessed as motivated to engage in the treatment, are willing to take part in all aspects of the programme and have minimum, low, or low-medium security classifications. They will say in their speeches ‘I wasn’t really ready last time, but this time, I’ve got it!’
It is so crucial that when they are released there will be adequate support, accommodation, a job… And all that soon enough for the learnings of this intensive three months course to be still accessible for them. The graduates are offered an Aftercare Worker’s support for up to 12 months to help with their recovery and connect them to any other support services needed either in prison or in the community.
A number of other possibilities are also available to graduates depending on their individual needs. Offender plans including release from prison into a community residential AOD rehab or outpatient service, moving to a different unit where they potentially access other rehab/training/education and/or employment, depending on needs. Aftercare Workers support graduates both in prison and the community depending on their personal pathway.
Achieving recovery is a long and challenging road. Many will end up relapsing and entering treatment multiple times before they are able to successfully achieve long term recovery. Addiction is a very complex issue to manage successfully – but often prison is the catalyst for people becoming motivated to change their lives and lifestyle. The women will say ‘Getting put in here is the best thing that ever happened for me and for my whanau.’
They need a lot of wrap-around support and accountability in their early days of learning to live without substances so they can experience the benefits of that change. Staff work hard to provide them with that support while they’re in their care. Personally, I was astonished and very impressed by the relationships staff form with the women in their care at Arohata’s DTU. The women tell us about this in their speeches – ‘They treat us as human beings here!’ ‘They actually care about us!’ The genuine affection from the women in return is demonstrated at the graduations, where staff too get their share of overwhelming gratitude along with warm hugs. Such respect and compassion are obviously vital ingredients in the rehabilitation process.
The good work that is being done in prisons gets very little acknowledgement. Getting a glimpse of what goes on inside this unit is both a real eye-opener and a great privilege. To all staff, therapists and to the women themselves, kia kaha!
And a plea to employers: take a chance on one of these women! After all they have learned and all their struggle to change, they deserve positive opportunities not to be funnelled back into their previous destructive ways of coping with life.
Congratulations to the Department of Corrections and CareNZ for making this life-giving programme available!
About the quilt
Jill Bowman’s striking 3-panel quilt From Devil to Angel was exhibited last year in Wellington. She dramatically illustrated her observations of the changes she saw. The barbed wire is real.
Her description: Many women in prison have backgrounds of addiction, violence, unemployment and homelessness. With support, I am optimistic many will transition from “devil to angel”, as one prisoner described it. I dedicate the quilt to the women I have taught to quilt in the Drug Treatment Unit at Arohata.
Jill’s ‘before’ and ‘after’ words, machined on the quilt are:
No social support