Women behind bars is a hot topic right now. But rather than pointing to soaring rates of incarceration or recidivism, the headlines about female prisoners are generally found in the entertainment pages – “Orange Is the New Black Season 5 spoilers“, “Has Wentworth really been cancelled?“.
But what is it really like for women on the other side of the barbed wire?
Over two special episodes, SBS current affairs programme Insight will show viewers the reality of prison life according to inmates and staff at the Silverwater Women’s Correctional Centre – a maximum-security facility in Sydney’s west.
The episodes dispense with the show’s regular forum format, and instead are pinned around one-on-one interviews conducted by host Jenny Brockie.
“It’s a very intense and fascinating look at a world you don’t normally get to see,” she told Mamamia.
With unprecedented access beyond Silverwater’s towering walls and razor-sharp wire, Insight offers a glimpse into a place most of us have to piece together from pop culture.
“It’s quite an experience to be inside a high-security jail,” Brockie said. “Just on a personal level, to have to walk in and go through four sets of gates and bio-metric testing and that sort of thing, before you’ve even got in.”
Passing through the layers of fencing, past the vast slabs of concrete, Brockie says there’s a sense of stepping in to a very different world.
“You look around and there are trees and a bit of grass and it looks quite pleasant, and then you realise there’s no one sitting under the trees. And you go back a number of times and there’s never anyone sitting under the trees, because you are in a maximum-security prison,” she said.
“Then other times you look and you see a group of women walking together, and it’s almost like a high school. It’s a very strange environment.”
The Insight team spent a year pulling the two-part special together, and settled on telling the story through the eyes of four prisoners who were interviewed over the course of several months.
"What we wanted to do was very in keeping with Insight," she said. "It's people's personal stories. It's finding out: Who are these people? What have they done? What are their attitudes towards their crimes? Where do they come from?"
The offenders featured in the programme include a woman convicted of bashing someone with a cricket bat ("I didn't feel anything"), to one who has spent the last 16 years in and out of jail, to another involved in the importation of 175kg of opium.
"She could be the woman living next-door to you in a suburban house," says Brockie of the latter. "If you look at her, she could be anybody.”
They speak with striking candour of their crimes, responsibility and remorse (or lack of), how they negotiate day-to-day life behind bars and the often intense relationships they form with fellow inmates.