There has been a dramatic rise in the female prison population in Australia in the last 10 years. This increase is largely due to the rising number of Aboriginal women going to prison.
In 1996, about 21% of women in prison were Aboriginal, last year it was 33%. The rate of increase is much greater than that of men.
Australia has the dishonour of jailing the highest proportion of its Indigenous female population in the world. Aboriginal women are 17 times more likely to be incarcerated than non-Aboriginal women.
The Aboriginal female imprisonment rate is 420 for every 100,000 prisoners, a higher rate than for Aboriginal males. Aboriginal women are only about 2% of the female Australian population so this is an appalling and scandalous situation.
Professor Eileen Baldry highlighted these statistics at a public forum on Women in Prison at NSW parliament on August 13.
She said there were differences between states and territories. Western Australia and Northern Territory have the highest number of Aboriginal women in prison.
In 2003, the NT had 32 Aboriginal women in prison but by last year, it had risen to 130 women. In 1982, women were 3.9% of the prisoner population but last year, it had risen to 7.6%.
Women are being imprisoned at almost four times the number they were 20 years ago. More women are held in custody on remand than men. Women have shorter but more frequent periods of imprisonment.
NEEDS OF WOMEN PRISONERS
One of the fundamental facts of the prison population is that it is mostly made up of men.
Last year, there were 28,427 men in Australian prisons compared with 2350 women. This means that government policies are geared to men. However, women prisoners have different needs to that of men.
Over the past 15 years there has been a significant increase in unsentenced women being imprisoned on remand. The growing remand population is due to police enforcement of bail laws and the increasing restriction on the number of times a person can apply for bail.
When on remand, women are kept at the highest classification rating. Baldry said that most Aboriginal women in prison in NSW are either on remand or serving sentences of less than 12 months.
Aboriginal women are imprisoned for a whole range of charges — assault, break and enter, theft, fraud, and driving disqualifications. However it also includes crimes that are typically regarded as less serious, shoplifting and drug related crimes.
The reason why women are in prison is largely due to overwhelming poverty. When they come out of jail, Aboriginal women return to disadvantaged suburbs and towns. Most of the women have been victims of physical and sexual abuse before they offended. Many have been criminalised because they reacted to a violent partner.
Often they have been using drugs and alcohol from an early age. They have a high rate of homelessness. Many have cognitive disabilities due to fetal alcohol syndrome or other causes, which are not recognised nor tested.
About 85% of women in prison had a mental illness compared with 19% in the Australian female population. The number of women who had a drug related mental health disorder was 57%. This range of mental health problems correlates with the figure for the impact of childhood abuse. Women have multiple and complex support needs that are not met inside the prison system.
Pat O’Shane, the first Australian Aboriginal barrister and a former magistrate was also a speaker at the August 13 forum. She stressed that a big part of the problem was the history of colonial dispossession of Aboriginal people, the appropriation of their land and incarceration onto reserves for the purpose of social control, resulting in the wholesale destruction of Aboriginal communities.
In her experience the most common factor for women in jail is the terrible level of poverty they suffer. The lack of housing in Aboriginal communities is appalling. O’Shane said the judicial authorities were riddled with race and gender prejudice and often our political masters were simply playing to the “shock jocks”.
BREAKING UP FAMILIES
Going to prison has the effect of breaking up families. In rural communities there are no buses or trains, so often, women get convicted of driving without a licence. O’Shane considers it totally unnecessary sending men or women to jail for anything less than 12 months but sometimes women were sentenced for three weeks, a month or two months.
Kate Armstrong, director of Women in Prison Advocacy Network, also spoke at the forum. She had been a prisoner and told the forum that half of women in prison are either illiterate or semi-literate.
She emphasised that prisons do not work at preventing crime because the recidivism rate is over 43%. Women have to earn a wage in prison due to the fact they need money to buy stamps, shampoo, pens and other personal items. One job they are hired to do is to rewind headsets that are used on aeroplanes, which does not give prisoners experience or skills that could help them gain work once released.
Of the 250 women at Silverwater jail in Sydney, none were studying because it meant they would not earn money. Armstrong said imprisoned women need access to drug and alcohol programs, community programs, health information, and adequate housing and job skills once released.
If the emphasis was on rehabilitation instead of punishment, all these problems could be addressed and the number of women in prison, including Aboriginal women, could be reduced dramatically.