Nurses reach out to ‘invisible’ women

Help for women supporting men in jail.

Two community nurses in NSW are playing key roles in a project to assist the ‘invisible populations’ of women supporting men in jail in country towns.

Christine Gillman in Bathurst and Narelle Shinfield in Goulburn have joined with other service providers in their areas to produce an information pack for women supporting jailed partners and relatives.

Christine Gillman and project worker Philippa Scott of the Central West Women’s Health Centre initiated the project.

They received funding to research problems faced by women who travel long distances, or relocate to new towns, in order to visit and support husbands, sons and grandchildren. They also researched issues women face once men are released from prison.

With four jails in the central west – Bathurst, Lithgow, Kirkonnell and Oberon – Christine realised more needed to be done to support a transient population of women and children who follow male prisoners who may be transferred several times during their incarceration.

‘We went to the jails and spoke to women who were visiting, to find out more about their problems,’ said Christine, a psychiatric nurse turned health educator.

‘We found very high levels of anxiety, stress and depression.

‘Many of these women had suddenly become sole parents, had lost an income, and were trying to cope with grief and loss.

‘They faced the stigma of their partner’s incarceration, had sometimes suffered the sudden loss of support from family and friends, and were trying to cope with problems experienced by children who were also impacted by the imprisonment of their father.’

Christine’s research produced the first ‘Invisible Sentence’ information pack to help such women cope with a myriad of problems including health issues.

The Women’s Health Centre trained support workers to distribute the packs at the jails. The feedback was very positive, Christine said.
Following its successful trial in Bathurst a similar information pack was produced for Goulburn by women’s health nurse Narelle Shinfield and social worker Kayte Wilson of Goulburn Community Health, and representatives of other service providers.

‘It is called the Invisible Sentence pack because while the women themselves are not serving a sentence, many of them feel as if they are,’ Narelle said.

‘The women often feel isolated and invisible when they are in a strange town with no support.

‘Sometimes they don’t want to mix with locals because they are frightened of receiving negative judgements because their partner is in jail.

‘The pack explains how to go about visiting prisioners, what support services are available for women and children, transport services, allowances and different organisations to contact.’

‘There is information about health issues, counselling services and emergency accommodation, and the pack includes a CD for people with low literacy skills.

‘Women sometimes really struggle to understand the system, and often haven’t got a lot of money.’

Narelle said women sometimes lack basic information such as how to find out whether the inmate they intend to visit is still at a particular jail.

‘The pack explains how a woman can obtain a pin number and put through a phone call to make sure the inmate hasn’t been transferred to some other jail. That knowledge might save a woman travelling with three kids for half a day only to discover the man they are visiting is not there.’

The pack covers sexual health issues, Hepatitis C, drug and alcohol services, counselling services and sexual assault services.

Narelle said it was necessary to explain to women that the pack offers a wide range of information, some of which may not be relevant to them, because some women may be offended about being offered information on domestic violence or sexual health.

Later this year Narelle will help devise and run sessions for women whose partners are soon to be released from Goulburn jail.
In Bathurst, Christine Gillman is involved in ‘train the trainer’ sessions for volunteers who will run information sessions for women awaiting release of partners.

For information contact:

  • Christine Gillman in Bathurst 6331 4133
  • Narelle Shinfield in Goulburn 4827 3913.