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Beyond Bars

with Ashlee Donohue, Frances Drake, Tabitha Lean and Eleni Psillakis, moderated by Kirsten Gray

10 March 2024

What is the relationship between trauma and the chance of ending up in prison. Expert thinkers shed light on what life is really like behind bars and the long-term impact it has. 

Co-curated by Bri Lee

Being in prison is like being in a violent relationship.

Sisters Inside founder Debbie Kilroy

Justice and the gendered gaol

Our justice system is not working as it should. Over 90% of women in prison have faced domestic violence, sexual assault or abuse. One-third of women inside are on remand - which means they haven't yet been found guilty of a crime. First Nations women are over-represented in incarcerated populations. And then there's the issue of mothers and pregnant people behind bars.

The prison system is making many people suffer unnecessarily, and it's criminalising mental illness, homelessness, and poverty. So is abolition the answer? Or is the solution better funding for legal services? Could there be more support post-release? Join these expert thinkers in this agenda setting conversation.

Presented by Sydney Opera House


Ashlee Donohue (she/her)

Ashlee Donohue, a proud Aboriginal woman from the Dunghutti nation, born and raised in Kempsey, NSW. An Author, Educator, and Advocate for topics specifically surrounding anti-violence, anti-racism, and Aboriginal women, Ashlee has created a platform to share lived experiences, as well as a safe place for many Aboriginal women.

As CEO of Miss Ashlee Enterprise, Educator, and advocate, Ashlee has become an inspiration and support network for many women which has led to becoming a media commentator and panellist appearing on television programs such as ABC's The Drum, NITV, SBS, and writing for publications such as Mamamia, IndigenousX, The Guardian, and more.

A highly sought-after facilitator, speaker, consultant, and powerful advocate Ashlee has presented at the UN Status of Women Forums in NYC, been the lead writer and co-creator for numerous anti-violence campaigns and anti-racism education materials, adaptations, and reviews of a variety of work. Ashlee is also a published author, her memoir Because I love him a personal account of love, motherhood, domestic violence, and survival.

Ashlee is currently the CEO of Mudgin-Gal Aboriginal Women’s Centre, sits on the City of Sydney’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advisory panel, and DVNSW Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advisory Committee.

A woman wearing a suit.
Frances Drake (she/her)

Frances wasted years of her life going in and out of prison. Finally in 2015 after she wrote to Women's Justice Network from prison and her life did a 180 degree turn. She made up her mind that her life had to change. In 2018, on her release with her Mentor by her side, she did community services at TAFE and studied criminal psychology, then joined the Advisory Panel, an advocacy group section of WJN. Frances has appeared on the Four Corners episode of Criminalising Women, also on the Drum, advocating for the women still in prison. It was a no brainer when Gloria Larman, CEO of Women's Justice Network, asked her to work for WJN as a Mentor Coordinator and Case Worker, more recently as facilitator of fREADom INSIDE book club, bringing reading skills and confidence to women in prison. 

Tabitha Lean (she/her)

Tabitha Lean is an abolition activist, poet and storyteller who seeks to disrupt the colonial project and abolish the prison industrial complex and the colonial carceral state. Having spent almost two years in Adelaide Women’s Prison, 18 months on Home Detention and 3 years on parole, Tabitha uses her lived prison experience to argue that the criminal punishment system is a brutal and too often deadly colonial frontier for her people. She believes that until we abolish the system and redefine community, health, safety and justice, her people will not be safe. She appears on behalf of the National Network of Incarcerated & Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls.

Eleni Psillakis (she/her)

Eleni Psillakis never imagined that experiencing prison would be part of her life. She was diagnosed with severe clinical depression towards the end of a 21-year marriage, where she experienced domestic violence but did not recognise it as such as it became ‘her normal’. With the help of a forensic psychologist before being sentenced, Eleni had a lightbulb moment where she saw the dominant thought pattern that kept her bound for decades from anorexia to imprisonment. She is now the Executive Officer of Success Works, a for-purpose organisation that supports women with a criminal record to rebuild their lives through purposeful sustainable employment.

Kirsten Gray (she/her) Moderator

Kirsten Gray is a proud Muruwari and Yuwaalaraay woman and works at the Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning at the University of Technology, Sydney. She is a graduate of Sydney University Law school and is due to complete her law PhD later this year. 

Kirsten has represented families in the child protection system and worked extensively in First Nations policy. She recently lead the First Nations policy and engagement teams at the Royal Commission into the Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with disability and was an adviser on the Don Dale Royal Commission. She has worked in the office of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner as senior adviser for many years and holds board positions on the National Justice Project, Public Interest Advocacy Centre and Create Foundation. 

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