In 1946, Myrtle Breen followed God’s call and began visiting women in Pentridge Prison. Early in 1948, Lois Tithridge commenced working at Campaigners for Christ and she heard about the work Myrtle was doing. They formed a trio called ‘This is Life’ and they started going into Pentridge once a month to sing to the girls and to share the gospel message.
In 1956, Fairlea Prison, Victoria’s first women’s prison with an all female staff, opened. The women were moved from the cold bluestone of Pentridge, to a jail with curtains on the windows and lino on the floors. For the next 40 years, nearly 18,000 women called Fairlea Prison “home.”
In the early years women were in for short sentences, for prostitution, larceny, or being drunk and disorderly. But over time, with increasing drug use, their crimes changed and so did the culture of the prison.
Myrtle Breen continued her regular visits for a number of years and developed a vision to launch The Open Door Home for Girls. It was situated in East Ivanhoe and was manned by Christians who cared for the girls who came out of prison to live there.
In 1965, while Myrtle’s focus grew more on the post-release housing support, Lois received a phone call out of the blue, from Mrs Mary Dorning, to ask if she would be interested in taking over the leading of the once-a-month ministry in the prison. She said she would at least pray about it. As she did this, she became convinced this was from the Lord and Lois eventually commenced and named the ministry Campaigners for Christ Prison Ministries.
She writes, “We had a godly group of ladies who came once a month on a Sunday to have an informal service with the women there. We had Merle Watkins on the piano and we taught the girls choruses and hymns, and of course sang their favourite hymns too. We taught them verses of scripture going through the alphabet, screened Christian films as in those days we were not permitted to actually ‘preach’. We mingled with the girls over supper and really got to know them personally as they were very open with us.”
Myrtle was followed by Marjorie Swales who dedicated 30 years of loyal service to Prison Network, serving as
Executive Director 1975-2006. She was awarded an Order of Australia Medal in 2007 for service to the welfare of women and was further honoured when the `Marj Swales Mother and Child Unit’ was opened at HMP Tarrengower prison. The unit was officially opened in 2006 and features a plaque reading: “Dedicated to Marj Swales in recognition of her generous commitment of time, support and inspiration to others and significant contribution to women, children and their families”.
In 1980 a new era in the work began as Marj Swarles took leadership serving as Executive Director 1975-2006.
During this time, Fairlea Prison was closed amidst much protest in 1996, to make way for the first privately owned women’s prison outside of the USA, the Melbourne Metropolitan Women’s Prison (MWCC).
Lois writes, “Things in the prison system became more rigid out there and working with male staff was fairly new to us. We commenced by holding a monthly meeting in the big hall at the prison, taking in singing groups and musical groups. We often had 30-40 girls attending. We also took in afternoon tea which was a draw card.”
After a few years our team found that the personal contact with the girls through Bible Study and services seemed to meet the girls’ needs. We also commenced a Craft program. By this time Laurel Gore was delivering sessions of sport with the girls, another way of building relationships with them, which was very successful. Marj and Laurel were also visiting ex prisoners and helping their families get through their darkest times.
In January 1988, the minimum security “Tarrengower Prison” opened and this provided more opportunities of visiting regularly. By now Marj and Laurel were paid as staff and did a marvelous work of taking a team up to Tarrengower once a month with support from Barbara Hickingbotham and friends who lived in Bendigo. Not only did they conduct evening services but they began transporting the children of prisoners to visit their mothers and drove many miles to do this time consuming but rewarding ministry.
In 1996 the Campaigners for Christ Prison Ministries was renamed Prison Network Ministries.
In November 2000 the Minister for Corrections announced the transfer of ownership and management of MWCC to the public sector and the name of the prison was changed to Dame Phyllis Frost Centre, after the well-known campaigner for women prisoners.
In 2002, Deb Redford came on board as a volunteer in the Craft program and little did she know then the journey God would take her on. She had a passion to help the ladies settle girls in flats, pick them up on their discharge, helped to obtain and deliver furniture etc. Deb was a tremendous support in the work with all of the team being on demand from time to time at all hours of the day and night rescuing girls in needs.
Deb Redford helped tirelessly with the Administration, Crafts, and also provided care & support to the women and their families. In 2006, she was offered and accepted the position as CEO. The ministry expanded hiring part-time staff and providing new programs such as Fun With Mum, Christian Discussion Group and Sunday Live each giving opportunities for more volunteers to provide care & support to the women.
In December 2014, Deb Redford handed the CEO baton to Diane Spicer who we believe to be God’s choice for this position.
Since its inception, Prison Network Ministries, a non-denominational Christian not-for-profit organisation, has been a friend and helper; the hands and feet of God, to those in a place where God is not easily recognized. And we will continue to be, well into the future.