What would you do if society, friends, whanau, Corrections NZ, and other government agencies were resigned to the fact that you were too far gone, too hard, too criminal, too lost to be redeemed?
For a segment of New Zealand women, this is their reality. Lives in a vicious cycle of arrests, jail cells, court appearances, parole hearings, release dates, and then more arrests. A life on repeat.
But amongst the hopelessness, help is coming from an unlikely source to redeem those that others have labelled irredeemable.
Annah Stretton has spent the past 25 years creating unique fashion for her own label, achieving international success along the way.
But when it came to decide what to do next, Annah did something no one really expected.
“I was considering what the next 20 years of my life looked like and wanting to make a very real contribution to the external environment."
While she's always believed in profit with purpose, this has been to date driven through other people initiatives, as she has been an averred supporter of Breast cancer ,the SPCA and many other high profile causes giving her time and generous financial support.
That contribution, she decided, was to set up her own foundation, The Stretton foundation and out of this came her first initiative, RAW – Reclaim Another Woman – in 2013.
Now in its first-fully operating year, RAW is producing outstanding tangible results among some of the country’s most recidivist female offenders – women the system has failed to change.
See ALSO: How Kiwi women leaders got to the top
Annah admits this is a long way from the world she is familiar with.
“For 25 years working in fashion, it becomes a relatively "nicely" narcissistic space in a lot of ways in that it’s very much about the gains and the profitability."
Although she is well known for her work with women in business over the years, Annah says, "Through RAW I wanted to make a much bigger contribution and perhaps look at the social gaps that existed out there, especially around socially disadvantaged women.”
She says after the Waikato Women’s Refuge approached her to assist them grow their brand , the seeds were planted for the inception of RAW.
“I suppose it’s important to note that at that time I was incredibly, I would say, almost bigoted around Maori. I had never immersed myself in anything to do with the culture and had no understanding and probably thought that they perhaps they were far too entitled.
“I had this white view of Maori and all that they stood for, and like many, I suggest, I took this view without having any knowledge at all."
Learning a new business
With her company based in Morrinsville, Annah asked to be taken into a safe house to immerse herself in realities of life with the Women’s Refuge.
“It was in here that I met a lot of young girls from the gangs in this country. These were young Maori girls that were mums and in a cycle of repeat violence. They were using Refuge as a respite centre and only really intending to take some time out and then they’d go straight back to their lives.”
She says whilst she had a huge respect for the Refuge, working in a very necessary area of crisis, due to the constant demand, she could see how hard it would be to get real change for the women especially with a work load 130 cases of domestic violence a week.
“There wasn’t enough time for anything else other than just getting the women into a safe space,” Annah says. “For me I was looking at how to prevent this from happening. How could we give them some choice in their lives because their current choices were incredibly limited? How could we break the cycle?"
My normal isn’t everyone’s normal
Annah says it was in the safe house that she understood for the first time that her “normal” wasn’t everybody else’s normal.
“Here’s someone like myself thinking that ‘Once Were Warriors’ was really a fictional movie. I was working with a young girl that said that her life had actually been worse than the film, and if she’d had that life she would have seen herself as lucky.
“It was an incredibly special place to be let into, and a space that I have a high level of respect and understanding for now.
“I was incredibly regretful that I didn’t spend more time getting off my pedestal and immersing myself in what is a very real part of this country’s history and culture.”
Crime just part of the pathway
She says RAW was born after identifying the real need to offer change and choice to women that came from a socially disadvantaged demographic.
“These women had come from the very difficult provinces around New Zealand like the Far North and lived lives immersed in the country’s gangs.”
The fashion designer says what you've got to understand is that the lifestyle they live is actually not bad in their eyes – it's only bad in our eyes.
“It's very lucrative – the crime, the drugs, all the stuff they do, is not difficult to them, it's not difficult at all. It's just difficult for our demographic.
“Going to prison is not difficult. It's just part of the pathway. I suppose it's a bit like you and I take a summer holiday they get locked up for a while.
“In prison they've got their friends, food, shelter, they are safe from violence , its familiar terrain, they're well-known – especially the highly recidivist ones. When I work in the prison, which is around once a month, it feels a bit like I'm going into a private girls boarding school.”
Pilot one: “A very necessary failure”
The pool of women Annah first chose to work with was from the Waikato Women’s Refuge.
“I put together a model where I would match women like myself, who had come from totally different pathway, with women from Refuge who had come from the country’s gangs. I would endeavour to negotiate a journey that included education, living a legal life, nurturing their children and getting them into school to provide safe spaces and advance them.
“But it didn’t work. It was a 'challenging failure' really.
“As much as I was able to negotiate and get alignment with the educational providers and services, and find mentors and women mentees that wanted to be matched, the RAW women were still in the chaos of their existing lives so a lot of them were unstable, still in crisis, they were not in safe environments, or they went back to what could be a very disruptive living space.”
She says the mentors were equally as challenging as their lives continued to change.
“Some of them moved away, some of them got a little disconnected or disenchanted with the role , they thought it would be great to assist a women get the change but it was hard work – or their health deteriorated and something changed in their immediate environments.
“So the consistency element that is so important to get this change just wasn’t there, and it didn’t work.”
But like any good social entrepreneur when something doesn’t work, she sat down and came up with another game plan, armed with all the learnings from Pilot one.
Pilot two: incubator homes and recidivist offenders
Annah realised she needed women in a space that required assistance, but were also removed from the chaos and disruption of the demographics they generally preferred to live in.
“And so the women's prisons came under my radar. It was there that we started Pilot two, the only pilot that remains today: our Waikato incubation homes.
"This is where we work with incarcerated women that were highly recidivist and had essentially been in prison most their adult lives, often having gone through the juvenile detention centres as youths. They’d come out for short spurts for two, three, or six months and then they'd go back in again. Women the country has written off and are generating huge social and fiscal costs for us all."
As well as looking at the incredible cost, Annah saw that the social cost of imprisonment was having a huge impact on children and extended whanau as well as the inmates’ crimes amplifying every time they were out.
Building strong boundaries to create freedom
Women need to match certain criteria in order to be eligible for RAW, who operate mainly out of Auckland Women's Prison two days a week and independently of Corrections.
“We look for women that have got a term to go to the end of their sentence and support them through their parole hearing. The criteria for us is they must want to change and be looking for a pathway to change.
“They've also got to be able to, want to, and be capable of relocating to Hamilton which means leaving children, partners and extended whanau. This means focusing on self, for a year based in the Waikato.”
“Once we know they fit the criteria we start to talk to them about what that journey looks like – study, hopes and dreams, children and whanau – we do all of that so we set ourselves up to really get to know the women.”
She says their incubation homes are essentially like a student flat with some very strong rules attached to it around curfew, drugs, alcohol, and visitors leading a legal life.
“The homes aren't protected and it's not that people can't go to the homes, but we're endeavouring to keep disruption out so it's more about who can't go to the homes rather than no one can go to the incubation homes.”
Taking the stain away
There's no more than four to a home and all the women’s daily living costs are managed by RAW – food, power, rent, transport – but the other side of it is that that they must contribute back into the community.
“I get them involved with me when I speak publicly , where most of them will speak with me at some stage. We can speak up to twice a week and do this throughout country from Christchurch to Whangarei.”
“Another important benefit of getting them into the speaking circuit is taking the stain away. It's breaking down the stereotype and stigma of a highly recidivist incarcerated woman and introducing them back into mainstream.
“Women and men that would traditionally be fearful of these people get to connect and see that they’re human beings that have just had a very different pathway that has led to this type of lifestyle.
“Two of the girls are now honorary members of the local Sunrise Rotary and are heavily involved in projects like the riverbank initiative or help up at the rugby on the cash entry booths. This is RAW's way of getting them to contribute back. The Sunrise Rotary are absolutely engaged with the girls. They love who they are.”
Annah says they’ll take all age's with the girl’s currently ranging from 21 through to 50.
"The only women we can't take is Hamilton women because they would be coming straight back into the disruption and chaos that they've left and it's all too close.”
Education key to breaking old habits
“At the moment we have two doing E-commerce at the University, and one doing Law. Those at Wintec are doing commercial music production and hairdressing.
“Some of the girls are obviously not so suited for study, so we look for different placements and opportunities. I have one girl that is really keen on sewing so we're trialing her at my clothing company.
“A lot of people say to me even when you get these girls through study, no one’s going to want to employ them – but I've got a waiting list of people that want them and I can't fill that because the girls are so immersed in study, they don't have a lot of time to work.
“So there will be no problems securing these women employment.”
Reconnecting with children and family
RAW allows family days for approved pro-social family only.
“If family are in a positive space and are advancing this journey, which is something we get to know in the first 6 months when we're connecting with them in prison, we are happy for them to visit.”
“They can't stay in the house, but they can come and pick the women up and be with them for the day.”
Annah says some of the women are also able to go home for some weekends to see their children.
“A lot of people say to me 'wow it's a big ask to have them go another year without their kids,' my response is, they've been without their kids for a lot of their lives, so one more year to get them highly functional to ensure they have their kids back for life, is possibly the best and last sacrifice they can make.”
Living a legal life
Having spent 25 years as a registered nurse in mental health, Annah’s sister is also intricately part of the RAW team along with a business manager , an administrator (a RAW woman), a reintegration life coach and a number of volunteers.
“Our head office is based on not far from the Wintec, in the centre of Hamilton, enabling Wintec staff and specialists, like psychology staff to be involved in the model,” Annah says. “I’m also setting up a robust governance board through my Global Women connections that will include international members.
“We're in discussions at the moment with Sir Richard Branson's Foundation, Virgin Unite, so we're certainly starting to come under the global radar in a strong way.”
She says the volunteers are important as they help with the girl's re-introduction into society and their daily duties which for us may seem like a normal part of life.
“The basics like cooking, shopping for food, getting a driver’s licence have never been that important in their lives, so these are skills many may have to learn.”
She says one of the underpinning things of RAW is that those involved in its programme have to live a legal life.
“When they first exit there is a high level of disruption, especially if they if they've been in jail for a long period of time , so much has changed on the outside and it's just an assault on the senses. So as much as they agree to adhere to the rules and do what we need them to do, the first 3 months can be a constant job reining them in.
“The curfews are also a lot tighter in these months which has been a suggestion from the girls that have already gone through and are now heading towards becoming alumni. They are actually helping us scale the model."
The results speak for themselves
Annah says RAW (stage 2) has only been going for a year with girls on the outside, and they’ve now had 18 girls out and only one has gone back to prison.
“We’ve got 10 women in homes at the moment, 4 women that have done between 3 and 6 months with us and have gone on to do their own thing, and one women who was recalled to jail as she brought drugs into the incubation house.
"The girls are drug-tested randomly every month so that's part of the programme."
She says by their own admission, the girls have said they all would have more than likely been back inside by now, had it not been for the offering that is RAW.
“If you take a calculator and do the math on $100k incarceration costs a year for each women, the fiscal cost is huge. The social cost is much higher.
"Now those women are highly likely to be fully functional around their children and whanau, having a positive influence and making contribution to the communities they previously disrupted."
But what about the men
And with the success of the programme, new doors are opening around avenues for funding and the expansion into New Zealand's male prison population.
“Currently I fund RAW through my Foundation, the private trusts also fund us and we've got support through grants from government,” she says. “It's an area that is traditionally hard to get change in especially because we're targeting the highly recidivist offenders. The Government has been observing the progress, but have waited at least a year to endorse RAW."
She says they've currently got their first men’s pilot working out of Rimutaka Prison in Upper Hutt.
“There's almost 9,000 men incarcerated in this country and only 600 women. We believe that we can transfer a lot of the content and the offering of the programme to the men.
"The difficulty with the men is that Corrections, and rightly so, wants to see that this will work for RAW, in that the men are a lot more violent. There's a lot of different challenges, it's a very different mind-set we're dealing with, with the men."
She believes working with male inmates has the potential to really grow the model but RAW has agreed to push pause on doing any more until January 2017 when the first pilot is completed.
Annah says she’s incredibly passionate about her work with RAW and is committed to seeing more lives changed.
And with the way the charity is growing and connections being made, 2017 is gearing up to be their biggest year yet in terms of numbers and exposure.
For now, the renowned designer will continue to split her time 50/50 between the contrasting worlds of high-end fashion and seeing underprivileged lives transformed – breaking cycles, softening hearts, and creating hope for brighter futures.
See ALSO: How Kiwi women leaders got to the top