Campaign against closure of women's prison
By Bronwen Beechey
MELBOURNE — Women's groups, prisoners' rights activists, community legal services and welfare organisations such as Catholic Social Services have joined in condemnation of a Victorian government proposal to close Fairlea women's prison.
Fairlea is the only prison in Victoria to cater specifically for women offenders, and opponents of its closure fear that women will be forced back into the general prison system, where their specific needs will be overlooked.
A draft report being considered by the state government proposes that prisoners at Fairlea and women prisoners at Barwon prison near Geelong be moved to K Division at Pentridge. K Division is the former Jika Jika high security unit, which was described as an "electronic zoo" and eventually closed following the deaths of five prisoners who were protesting against conditions there.
K Division is still a maximum security unit where the exercise areas are like big cages.
Women at Fairlea prison have asked the Equal Opportunity Board for an interim order to prevent the closing of the prison for 28 days, allowing consultation on the issue.
Fairlea is the only prison in Victoria which allows women to have their children living with them. Women whose children live outside can have them visit for extended periods.
Fairlea provides a more supportive environment for women than other prisons. The majority at Fairlea share cottages with their own bathroom, kitchen and lounge. The prison has specialist women's health and education programs which have been acknowledged as the best in the prison system. Ante-natal and post-natal care and specialist medical services are provided by the Mercy, Royal Women's and Royal Children's Hospitals. The custodial, military-style environment
of men's prisons is likely to have negative effects on the women.
The majority of women in prisons are survivors of various forms of abuse. Being placed in a male prison where they are frequently exposed to sexual and verbal harassment would be detrimental to their recovery.
The action taken by the Fairlea prisoners is being supported by the newly formed Save Fairlea Women's Prison Coalition, which is organising a number of actions including a vigil outside the prison which will begin on July 25 and continue for at least two weeks. The Coalition is also circulating petitions against the closure of Fairlea.
The state government's rationale for closing Fairlea is that it costs too much to run. It plans to eventually replace Fairlea with a private prison.
Shelly Birchfield, a member of the coalition and a worker at the Coburg Community Legal Centre, told Green Left that the improvements planned to make K Division habitable for the women, plus the eventual cost of establishing a private prison, will far exceed the cost of keeping women at Fairlea.
The coalition is also questioning why more women offenders are not given community-based orders rather than custodial sentences. While 75% of women in prisons are there for non-violent offences such as shoplifting, theft, fraud or drug offences, only 12% of offenders given community-based orders are women.
The Coalition is also totally opposed to the privatisation of prisons. "The experience of privatised prisons in Queensland shows that education and rehabilitation are given low priority, because basically the owners of the prisons are running them to make a profit."
The Save Fairlea Women's Prison Coalition meets every Wednesday at 4.30 p.m., at Baker's Cafe (upstairs), Brunswick St, Fitzroy. For more information, contact Marc, Chris or Wendy on 363 1811.