Active programs for incarcerated mothers and their children

Active programs across Australia, July 2021

The Transforming Corrections to Transform Lives project is an innovative collaboration and co-creation project working to transform the lives of mothers in prison and the lives of their children. This project is, through a process of co-creation, developing a new model for working with incarcerated mothers and their children to break cycles of disadvantage, improve outcomes, and support wellbeing and social inclusion.

As part of our project, we conducted a stocktake of programs that are currently offered to mothers in prison in Australia, and their children. These programs can be described as those that are aimed at addressing the criminogenic needs of mothers. Criminogenic needs are those that are identified as important in reducing offending behaviours and preventing reoffending (Andrews and Bonta, 2010). Criminogenic needs, more broadly, include substance use, antisocial cognition, antisocial associates, family and marital relations, employment, and leisure and recreational activities (Andrews and Bonta, 2010). Our list of programs comprises those that attempt to address these criminogenic needs specifically for women, as well as those targeted directly to mothers who are currently in prison, or have recently transitioned out prison, as well as their children.

To identify the programs, we:

  1. Conducted document reviews: Searched grey literature including program documents, organisation websites, annual reports, and technical documents.
  2. Engaged directly with organisations: Communicated with implementing organisations and agencies either via the telephone or email to confirm online information and ask follow-up questions for clarity.

Though some programs may have been evaluated either internally or by funders, unfortunately, published, peer-reviewed evaluations were not available for any of the programs. Therefore, we are unable to comment on which programs show evidence of effectiveness. Rather, our stocktake of Australian programs details the program aims, program participants, the agency who delivers the program, as well as the program length. This list excludes prison-based nursery programs, or mother and baby units, as these are not always classified as programs, but only as living arrangements or privileges. As at March 2021, all Australian States, except South Australia, had prison facilities for mothers with babies or young children up to the age of 5. 

See all active programs by state:

Australian Capital Territory

New South Wales

Northern Territory


South Australia



Western Australia

Summary Findings

The review highlighted the following:

1. Need for evaluations and evidence-informed programs.

There is a need to establish an evidence base for programs targeting incarcerated mothers and their children. From the information available, there are currently 51 active programs available for women generally, or mothers and their children specifically, all of which appear to be operating without an empirically established evidence base. It is possible that some programs have been evaluated within the organisations in which they are offered, or by funders, but these evaluations are not publicly accessible, and their methodology is unlikely to have been subject to peer-review to assess the quality of the evaluation. It is vital that sufficient funding is provided alongside program delivery to ensure that programs are being appropriately evaluated. Evaluations should be performed to determine whether they work and to ensure that they are not contributing to further harm for mothers and their children. Such evaluations would also inform where subsequent funding should be directed, and which programs are not an effective use of resources.

2. Potential duplication of programs

There were a variety of programs with the same or similar goals, such as the 10 different programs seeking to help mothers transition back into their communities. Though it is possible that transition programs might need to be regionally based, since program staff need to develop relationships with service providers in the community, it is unclear which of these programs are the most effective in assisting women to transition successfully into the community and in reducing their likelihood of returning to prison. Establishing an evidence base for transition and community re-entry programs would indicate which programs should be replicated and potentially scaled up across the country.

3. Engagement and completion of programs

Although we identified 51 different programs available throughout the country, and it is possible that there are others, not all mothers will be able to access the programs being delivered in their correctional centre or community. Eligibility criteria, sentence lengths or remand status, waitlists, movements between centres, and return home addresses are some of the many factors that may results in programs being inaccessible for mothers and their children. It was not possible for us to calculate how many women, or mothers more specifically, received programs in any given year.

4. Limited counselling and healing services

In the first series of workshops for the Transforming Corrections to Transform Lives project, we established that many women in prison have life histories characterised by child maltreatment, poor mental health, substance abuse, domestic violence, victimisation, unemployment, financial distress, and homelessness[1]. These substantial adversities lead to deep trauma that affects these women and their children. While all correctional centres have counsellors and psychologists, it is likely that demand for individual counselling and psychological support exceeds capabilities. Furthermore, while some healing programs were identified, the lack of tailored counselling programs to address trauma and promote healing for women is concerning and suggestive of a large gap in relevant services available for women more generally.

5. Gaps in services and programs

In the first series of workshops for the Transforming Corrections to Transform Lives project, mothers also highlighted the need for general life skills trainings focused on cooking, budgeting, paying bills, and tenancy management[2]. No programs to promote these life skills were identified in this review.

1 The needs of mothers before, during and after imprisonment: Summary findings from workshop series 1:

2 ibid

Note: All program information was correct as of 31 March 2021.
We acknowledge that there may be some programs and evaluations that we have missed in preparing this report. We welcome you sharing information with us. We will be updating this report and our website at regular intervals.
To access a printable version of this resource, view the PDF here.