Prison campaign continues
By Bronwen Beechey
MELBOURNE — An inquiry by the Victorian Equal Opportunity Board into discrimination against women prisoners is to go ahead despite the failure of an injunction aimed at preventing the removal of women from Barwon prison, and attempts at sabotage by the state government.
The application for the injunction arose from a report released in 1992 by Commissioner for Equal Opportunity Moira Rayner. The report detailed discrimination against women at Barwon, a predominantly male prison situated near Geelong, around access to their children, and to services such as education, libraries and shops. Rayner sought negotiations with the state government over the issues raised in her report, but many of the matters are still outstanding.
In July, the proposed move of all women prisoners in the state to K Division at Pentridge prison (the former Jika Jika maximum security prison) was floated in the media. Rayner sought meetings with the government and was told that no decision on the move had yet been made. She then decided that the issue of discrimination at Barwon could not be resolved by negotiation, and on July 23 referred the matter to the Equal Opportunity Board for inquiry. She also sought an injunction to "preserve the subject matter of the inquiry", i.e., that the women not be moved from Barwon until the inquiry had been completed. On the same day this application was served, the 20 women at Barwon were moved to Fairlea women's prison.
In its decision, announced on August 5, the EOB made it clear that the failure of the injunction had no bearing on the inquiry, despite the obvious attempt by the government to sabotage it by moving the prisoners. It also rejected the government's argument that prisons were not covered by the Equal Opportunity Act in its provision of services. The reason the injunction failed was in fact due simply to a loophole in the Act under which an injunction can only be granted if the board is hearing a complaint rather than an issue which comes before it from an inquiry.
The board's decision made it clear that the inquiry into conditions at Barwon should not only continue but should be expedited, as "it may provide some insight into the future detention of female prisoners in this state within a male prisoner environment". This could strengthen the case of activists who are campaigning against the proposed closure of Fairlea prison, on the basis that a male prison environment would disadvantage women prisoners.
A separate injunction sought by women at Fairlea to prevent the closing of the prison until consultation has occurred is still to be heard by the board. In the meantime, supporters of the campaign gil outside Fairlea, and are calling
on volunteers to join them. Anyone wanting to be involved in the vigil can contact Marg, Wendy or Chris on 363 1811 during office hours, or Catherine on 375 1317 after hours.