20 Jun 2019

Annah Stretton: bringing hope to women in prison

From Afternoons with Jesse Mulligan, 1:28 pm on 20 June 2019

Annah Stretton is a name you may not associate with prisons, but for five years the Kiwi fashion designer and social entrepreneur and her sister Rebecca have helped women prisoners find a way out of the vicious cycle of drugs, addiction and violence.

So far, their RAW on the Inside programme has helped show nine percent of New Zealand's female prison population how to make a better life.

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Annah Stretton and her sister Rebecca Skilton Photo: Annah Stretton

Read: Annah Stretton on women, meth and incarceration (RNZ, 19 June 2018)

Stretton says she wanted to be about more than just fashion and in 2013 set up RAW (Reclaim Another Woman) to fill in some of the gaps she saw in community work.

She began working with Waikato Women’s Refuge, which led her to think about mew models for change.

“I saw the wonderful work refuge are doing in crisis and I started to think about demographics. Because they were a Māori women’s refuge, a demographic that was vulnerable, that were living in very disadvantaged environments. How could we actually come up with a change model that would give them choice? That’s how it kind of all started.”

Initially, Stretton set up mentor/mentee relationships with women from the refuge.

“They were essentially young Māori girls from the gangs endeavouring to negotiate education, work. [We were] just supporting them generally to move forward.”

But that didn’t work because often women in crisis are not ready to make the change, she says. 

Stretton instead decided to put this passion into women’s prisons – a stabilised population who are potentially already thinking about change.

“[The prisons] certainly are the circuit, they are the interrupters. We’ve got a wonderful space now that we could choose to create a non-negotiable platform for learning and we could really change outcomes from women and men.”

Stretton has written a book called The RAW Truth which captures the stories of the women, and the story of her own journey alongside them.

“They’ve bared their hearts and souls, really… [The fact that] women have to live in that way that they’ve travelled those journeys is possibly not what a lot of us would think… A lot of us would not understand that that is actually the journey of too many in this country.”

Crystal is one of the women who agreed to show Stretton what life for her is like and shares her story in the book. A child of the Mongrel Mob, she has two children and found herself in the Women’s Refuge.

Another woman named Renee had been to prison in Australia for meth. She went into the prisons with Stretton, and by doing so, gave the project some credibility. 

“No-one wants to speak to me. I have no connection or relevance to those women. You’ve got to look for the influences, you’ve got to develop the relationships, and that’s got to be with the offending women.”

This life is normality for the women, Stretton says.

“It’s only when you come into our space that you realise there’s another way to live.”

She says it’s not as simple as taking her normal to them and overlaying it in that hopes it will rub off: “That was so wrong.”

“It’s about what the women want ... It’s very much  community-led and my community is the offending community.”

Today Stretton works with women who've come out of prison and are receiving wrap-around support in incubated living spaces.

Women who have come through the RAW programme assist in order to help other women grow.

“That’s part of our succession journey – using the ex-offenders to actually continue to develop the RAW model.”

Stretton also works within prisons to build a pipeline that will create a sense of self-worth for the women and open up opportunities and new pathways for them on the outside, she says.

“It works because it’s offender-driven. It didn’t work when we were endeavouring to work through the staff at Corrections, there was very little appetite. It wasn’t [effective] until we actually got alongside the women and we were allowed to operate independently inside.”

Currently, 150 out of the 460 women in Auckland Region Women's Corrections Facility (ARWCF) have connected with the RAW programme.

Every Thursday, Stretton takes a speaker into the prison to help show the women that there is another world available to them on the outside.

“This is a huge journey that I’m trying to unpick, a journey of birthright in many cases so I’ve actually got to develop a relationship of trust and that takes a long time.”

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