By Peter Boyle
MELBOURNE — Women have suffered disproportionately as a result of the rise of "law and order politics" in the 1980s, according to the organisers of an upcoming conference on "Women, Imprisonment and Law & Order".
Women are twice as likely to be jailed for theft as men, four times as likely to be jailed for fraud and, once in jail, are twice as likely to be charged with prison offences, said a spokesperson for the Women and Imprisonment Group (WIG), which is organising the conference.
In the six years to 1990, the number of women prisoners increased by 89%, while that of male prisoners increased by 18%. Currently there are more than 100 women in jails and police lockups in Victoria. They are held in four prisons: Fairlea (in Melbourne), Barwon (near Geelong), Tarrengower (near Bendigo) and K division in Pentridge (Melbourne). In the last three years, it is estimated that somewhere between 19 and 40 women who left Fairlea have died.
Women are imprisoned mainly for crimes resulting from poverty. These women have been jailed for offences such as Social Security fraud, theft, drug-related offences, prostitution and failure to pay fines. Between 70% and 80% of women in prisons are victims of incest. Aboriginal women, who make up 1.5% of women in the general population, are nearly 20% of the women in prisons.
Women in prison and their visitors are frequently strip-searched, and they are permitted fewer visits than male prisoners even though many have dependent children. Two-thirds of women in prison have children.
A recent report by Dr Patricia Easteal for the Bureau of Immigration Research showed that migrant women in prison suffer overwhelming deprivation and isolation because little provision is made for women from different cultural backgrounds. The report also showed that women prisoners born overseas are three times more likely than Australian-born inmates to serve terms longer than five years, while they are less likely to have been jailed before.
"Law and order" politics has brought longer and harsher prison sentences, more prisons, more police, more police powers and police resources, says WIG. However, there is still no clear correlation between increases in law enforcement and reduced crime rates.
The conference, which will be held on Friday, May 8, at the Footscray Community Arts Centre, will assist community groups working with women in prison to develop a greater awareness of the issues in the "law and order" debate. For more information contact (03) 417 6984.