Our Underpinning Values
At Sisters Inside, we believe that no-one is better than anyone else. People are neither "good" nor "bad"; human behaviour is circumstantial, environmental, transformable and fallible. Human beings are driven by seeking to have their needs met. However, they are also essentially social and interdependent; we each need to be connected to other people and community. The existence of society depends on individuals. Individuals depend on society. We aspire to a society that meets the social and individual needs of the full diversity of its members.
Whilst each person has some opportunity to make choices, our individual and social context plays an important role in determining the extent of these choices. "Choice" must be seen in the context of the situation, the social views being advocated, access to information and the personal experiences/values/ beliefs of each individual. Whilst women have the potential to do anything, it is more difficult for us to make choices when we live in an oppressive and unjust society. This belief is fundamental to Sisters Inside's commitment to challenging and changing the context in which women live.
We believe that there is no "absolute truth", however we live in a society where "truth", "right" and "wrong" are determined by a small minority of the population. This group exercises disproportionate power in all areas of society. In fact, the whole society is constructed in the interest of this dominant group, which seeks to maintain the status quo. Maintenance of our current social structure depends on the existence of a stratified structure, which is unfair to the majority of its members. This results in imbalances in social and economic power, including different levels of access to justice for different members of society.
Because of the economic focus of our current society, property is more highly valued than people. Different members of society are of different values. Only members of the dominant group are consistently valued. They also own most of the society's wealth.
This small minority maintains its privilege through a range of indoctrination techniques. Other social groups are negatively stereotyped. For example, women are typically depicted as either "mad" (if they do conform to social expectations) or "bad" (if they challenge these); they are damned if they do conform and damned if they don't! This promotes the idea that anyone outside the dominant group is "other", "deviant", or "a special needs group". In fact, these combined groups comprise the majority of the population.
A wide variety of means are used to promote the idea that the privilege of this small elite is justified - even, the "natural order of things", or "the only way to run a society". Techniques used include exploiting the anxieties of the wider population, thus diminishing the humanness of most groups in society. People just outside the ruling elite are provided with incentives to contribute to maintenance of the status quo, in anticipation of joining this social group. Unjust laws and social rules institutionalise levels of advantage and disadvantage across the population, and are changed if too many outside the dominant minority begin to use them in their own interest. In short, the norms of the dominant group are presented as "natural", "inevitable", "normal", "true" or "common sense".
Useful laws are those which protect freedoms and create social order. Currently the dominant group defines what "crime" is. If laws were created by and for the whole of society, they would be more effective in enabling freedom and order. In fact, our laws often function to criminalise the most marginalised social groups. If people felt genuinely included in society, they would be less likely to break laws.
Prisons are an irrational social response. Prisons do not achieve their intended outcomes - they neither "correct" nor "deter" law breaking. In our society, prisons only function to punish and socially ostracise law breakers. This generates alienation and further criminal behaviour. It also explains the disproportionate numbers of people from socially marginalised groups, particularly Aboriginal people, in the prison population.
Society should resource prevention of crime through development of progressive social policies, particularly those that value women and children. We need to recognise the long term value of preventative strategies, rather than relying on immediate "outcomes". People who have been through the prison system are best placed to generate realistic solutions to the problems of the criminal justice system. This expertise should be actively valued and encouraged by society. Every member of society is entitled to have their human rights protected. There is no simple solution to how this is best achieved. However, in our society, prisons have been demonstrably unsuccessful in achieving this. Alternative means must be found for protecting society against destructive behaviour.
A key outcome of imprisonment is the social alienation of a wider group than simply prisoners themselves. The children of women in prison are penalised. Children get their sense of belonging and identity from their connections with their closest caregiver(s) and/or kin. Disturbance of this process can have serious consequences in the formation of the adult, including continuation of a pattern of offending in some families. Therefore, it is impossible to consider issues related to women in the criminal justice system without taking account of their children. Further, maintenance of family relationships is critical to women's capacity to reintegrate successfully with the community following release.
Our Values: Why We Exist
Sisters Inside is committed to changing our unjust social structure. We recognise that the level of change required to achieve a just society is substantial, and that change toward this end will be slow. In spite of this, we believe there is value in challenging social norms through valuing people over property. We will act in the interest of the majority who are currently excluded from social power. At present, the structure of our society reduces the choices available to both individuals and groups. We are working toward a society which enables people to make real choices, that is, to have an equal ability to say "yes" or "no"; to make changes or to choose not to change.
We believe that two key strategies can contribute toward achieving positive social change. Both societies and individuals are in a constant process of change. Any change can be more or less useful. Doing things differently can, in and of itself, create new positive possibilities in people's minds - knowledge is power! Consistent, persistent challenge of the status quo can equally generate productive change. For example, challenging behaviour that is widely assumed to be acceptable can generate the community awareness required for productive social change to occur.
We will understand and promote the common humanity of everyone in society, rather than accepting the constructs that operate in the interest of the ruling elite. People have the capacity to learn from experiences of others. We believe we are responsible for sharing knowledge with those that "miss out", including women in the criminal justice system. This is why we are committed to reassuring women that they can exercise some control in their lives, and convincing them that they can gain from an improved society. To this end, we will act to achieve positive changes both within prison "society" and within the wider social structures affecting women's lives.
Sisters Inside will therefore act on two fronts - to encourage people to act in their own collective interests, and to challenge those who are a barrier to productive social change. Being equally accessible to all women in the criminal justice system, regardless of their background, is essential to achieving this. Continuing to constructively critique our society will also ensure the ongoing relevance of our work. Sisters Inside should be seeking to effect change, not maintaining the status quo. We will exploit weaknesses of systems. We will challenge and seek to change policies, structures, processes and behaviours that treat women unjustly. The inhuman treatment of women in the criminal justice system needs to be challenged by everyone who wants to live in a socially just society.
Sisters Inside should relentlessly pursue issues of injustice suffered by all women, especially women in prison and elsewhere in the criminal justice 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. Clearly this will mean that we will be in conflict with those systems that benefit from the current situation. We therefore need courage in dealing with conflict and consequences of conflict as an organisation.
Our Vision: What We Seek to Achieve
Sisters Inside is a versatile, powerful organisation. We both strategically advocate for the collective interests of women in the criminal justice system, and provide services to address their more immediate needs. These roles function in a complementary manner - our service provision informs our social change work. Any potential conflict of interest between these two roles is addressed through the division of labour within Sisters Inside - the management structure (including members on the inside) focuses on lobbying and collective advocacy; staff focus on service provision (which may include advocacy for individual women).
All our activities will be informed by a sound social analysis, and strong relationships with key stakeholders. Our credibility relies on having a comprehensive information base, providing high quality services and developing sophisticated social change strategies. We are committed to understanding the prison system, relevant public policies and the organisational cultures of government, political parties and other services. We will network widely, and build and maintain strong relationships with women in the criminal justice system, flanking organisations and funding bodies. Both staff and management of Sisters Inside will actively engage with training opportunities, and contribute to and participate in conferences, wherever possible. Where our values and visions are compatible with those of other organisations, we will seek to work collaboratively to achieve change in the interest of women in the criminal justice system.
We will be powerful, active advocates for the unmet human rights of women in the criminal justice system. We ultimately seek major changes in the position of women in this system in Queensland. We seek to expose injustices in prison policies and procedures, exploit contradictions within the system and demand public accountability from those in authority over women in the criminal justice system. Our advocacy role is primarily concerned with educating stakeholders about the needs of women in prison, and convincing them to act on these needs. Where the necessary reforms do not occur, we will take on a strong agitation role, designed to achieve collective, united action. We recognise the risks associated with coercion as a strategy, and whilst not generally employing coercive tactics, we remain open to this option as a last resort (that is, when the situation of women on the inside could not get worse). Similarly, we will be circumspect in our use of media, ensuring that any use operates in the best interests of women in the criminal justice system.
Whilst our lobbying role is designed to address the oppression of women in the criminal justice system, we recognise that this is a long term preventative strategy. Women in this system have a wide variety of unmet needs. That's why Sisters Inside will continue to offer a combination of services designed to address current gaps in services to women in prison - individual advocacy, brokerage, programs, activities, workshops, referral, crisis support, counselling and group work. Our advocacy for individual women in the criminal justice system will be framed by an open bias in their favour, and a commitment to achieve fair outcomes for our clients. Our brokerage role will include enabling information flow between women in prison, collecting stories to inform our collective advocacy, and enabling women in the criminal justice system to make complaints arising from breaches of their human rights. The emphasis of our direct services will be driven by the expressed needs of women in prison and will include support in the transition from prison to the wider community and assistance to keep women out of prison.
All our service delivery work will function from a firm and consistent ethical base. This includes a particular focus on confidentiality with our clients, acknowledgement of all women's experiences as valid, and functional and financial accountability of the highest order to our funding bodies.
Our Role: How We Function
At Sisters Inside we seek to retain our existing strengths as the organisation grows.
We have found that building and maintaining sound relationships between members of our governing structure on the inside and the outside has provided a firm foundation for our effective functioning. Given the difficulties inherent in enabling women on the inside and outside to work together within our management structure, we will continue to recruit like-minded women to fill any Management Committee vacancies. We will also seek to maintain a range of competencies and experiences amongst women centrally involved in the organisation, including women who have previously done time and women with political experience. It is through this network-based approach that we will continue to retain a committed staff and low turnover at both a staff and management level.
Loyalty, honesty and trustworthiness underpin all our actions. We will maintain strong relationships between women on the inside involved with management of Sisters Inside, and the rest of the organisation, through recognising the loyalty relationship between women currently on the inside, and those within the organisation who have previously been in prison. Our commitment to the organisation is reflected in our willingness to hang in there when times are difficult, to name and process organisational issues as they arise and to focus on big issues for the organisation even when they are not our personal priorities. Our proven track record in being up-front and consistent at all levels in the organisation has been critical to our success. We will only continue to deserve the trust of women in the criminal justice system for as long as we walk the talk, protect the emotional safety of these women and maintain confidentiality. We recognise that valuing the expression of passion and strong emotion are not a usual feature of community organisations, and will therefore explain their role at a management level to women who become newly involved with Sisters Inside.
Sisters Inside is distinguished from other services within the prison by our women-directed approach. We are committed to believing women in the criminal justice system, treating their experiences as valid and working from what they say they want. We are guided by these women in determining service gaps within the system and designing services to address these. All our strategies are assessed according to their impact on women in the criminal justice system, and their possible consequences for these women. That is why Sisters Inside acts as an autonomous body within the prison system. We are driven by the needs of women in the criminal justice system, rather than by the expectations of prison authorities, the criminal justice system, governments or the wider society. This places us in a unique position to genuinely act in the interest of women in this system - to make strategic judgments about when and how to use our power and challenge any illegitimate exercise of power by the criminal justice system.
Sisters Inside will continue to treat women in the criminal justice system with respect and dignity regardless of their race, cultural background, sexual preferences, class or age. We will advocate for similar treatment of women by systems and society.