Beyond the bars: Eleni Psillakis on life post incarceration and her 2020 Altitude Award nomination

When Eleni Psillakis left the gates of the Dillwynia Correction Centre in July of 2014, she did not know what to expect of her life beyond bars.

Six years on and stronger than ever, Ms Psillakis is thriving and striving to help others who have walked down a similar road to what she had.

“I wake up every day and go to sleep every night thinking about what I can do to improve the lives of people impacted by the justice system, particularly women’. I know there’s something I’m meant to do with this, it’s my purpose,” Ms Psillakis told Neos Kosmos.

Recently Ms Psillakis was nominated in the 2020 Altitude Awards in the Changemaker Category for her work as Success Works Program Manager at Dress for Success Sydney.

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The program aids women impacted by the criminal justice system by building their confidence, helping them gain employment and avoid reentering the system.

The path to Ms Psillakis’ success however required a lot of digging within to truly help her understand what had led her to where she is today.

“You live with thought patterns and beliefs of yourself that you don’t recognise are unhealthy because they become your normal. I wish I got help in my late teens to early twenties and it wasn’t until I got help from a forensic psychologist that I realised that the thought patterns stem from way back. In no way did I ever believe that I would end up in prison but I could clearly see the link between offending and those thought patterns,” she said.

Dealing with mental health issues and battling an eating disorder had distorted Ms Psillakis’ sense of self worth, which she felt led her to the prison cell she occupied for 11 months.

Ms Psillakis’ children took this photo in the car driving home on her day of release six years ago Photo: Supplied

Ms Psillakis reflects on her time behind bars quite openly, recalling the fear, anguish and even the relief she had felt back then. It is this openness, that has helped many others.

“I was scared, I felt isolated…but at the same time in the first month, my whole life I felt like I had to please people and was a perfectionist with a lot of mental health issues including an eating disorder and never feeling you were good enough. The first month I was incarcerated there was a little bit of relief from that feeling, of that ‘I don’t have to try in here’, because we’re all in here in the same boat, so I don’t have to try and please people in here.”

“One of the prison officers, she must’ve seen the fear on my face as I was standing in line to go to the clinic to get my medication. She said to me ‘Eleni, there’s a fine line between blue and green, and any one of us can end up on either side of the fence’…that was a real healing quote that I hung on to, because I hated myself for the decision I made that ended up costing me my freedom and life as I knew it,” she said.

Her time was not all lost, as Ms Psillakis explained that she was able to learn to “find her voice” and speak up for herself, something that was near impossible for many years.

When the opportunity to stand up for a lady that was being bullied presented itself, Ms Psillakis rose to the occasion.

“I thought to myself you can either speak up for her and if you learn to speak up for her and take the initiative in here, you can do it anywhere. I was scared stiff but I thought I have to learn how to do this, and in an appropriate manner I did and the bullying stopped.”

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Ms Psillakis encountered another silver lining before even entering the facility, one that she never thought that she would encounter, but would be the catalyst of helping her through the darker of the 335 or so days she served.

“The ‘gold nugget’ for me was that even in my early teenage years I felt that I was not loved by my parents and I had to do things to please them and then I disclosed to them the offending and that I could face jail time. As a Greek woman, that was so scary to me. I get teary remembering these moments…Their response was completely not for 30 years prior what I believed they would respond to me failing them.”

“They said ‘you’re our daughter and we love you and you’re human, we understand’. My very next question to them was ‘do you still love me?’ and they said ‘of course we love you!’. That unconditional love was the start of healing for me and I took that into prison with me…Having that unconditional love behind bars was a huge strength,” Ms Psillakis explained.

There are still many flaws within the criminal justice system including the perception of the wider community and “what people believe incarceration is supposed to do”.

Up to 90 per cent of incarcerated women have been physically, sexually or emotionally abused as children or adults, often leading to their offending and around 1/3 of those who leave prison are released into homelessness.

Eleni Psillakis works to build the confidence of others who have gone through a similar experience to what she has Photo: Supplied

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Many times, court ordered rehabilitation programs and mental health appointments are not realised, stripping them of much needed ongoing support and making the process of building healthy behavioural habits far more difficult.

“Some of those programs work for some people and I was involved in a group program, that ran for six weeks of my 11 months. I found that program helpful. The judge had ordered that I continue weekly psychology sessions in prison, obvioudly it couldn’t be with a psychologist that had known me in the months prior, but I got one session in 11 months. What is put on paper doesn’t always happen,” Ms Psillakis said.

Things do not get much easier even after you have ‘done your time’.

It seems the punishment is ongoing, as people with a record are often immediately knocked back by potential employers although the offence would not impact their work.

A record becomes a stain, making it a battle to reintegrate into a community that often does not see them as human.

“You come out and you feel you are labelled and there are so many barriers when you have criminal record and I experienced this after those 11 months. I still don’t feel like I completely belong. So for someone who hasn’t learnt the tools or doesn’t have the strength to believe in themselves, it’s very easy feel like prison is where you belong more than in the community,” Ms Psillakis said.

It is this reason that Ms Psillakis works to assist those who leave the bars behind them, hoping to move on with their lives and teach the world to use their “ears to understand and not to judge”.

If you would like to help support Dress for Success Sydney’s programs financially, you can donate through their website.