Jailing our women
by Dr Bill Jonas* Indigenous women live in "a landscape of risk" and as a nation we should be ashamed that we have not addressed this urgent problem. There is a crisis in the level and type of contact of Indigenous women with correctional systems in Australia. * Indigenous women are currently incarcerated at a rate higher than any other group in Australia — including that of Indigenous men. * Over-representation of Indigenous women occurs in the context of intolerably high levels of family violence, over-policing for selected offences, ill-health, unemployment and poverty. * Studies of Indigenous women in prison reveal life in a society fraught with danger from violence. * Removal of Indigenous women from the community has significant consequences and potentially exposes children to risk of neglect, abuse, hunger and homelessness. * Indigenous women also serve comparatively shorter sentences, suggesting a general failure to employ the principle of imprisonment as a last resort. * Once imprisoned, re-offending statistics show that Indigenous women are at greater risk of returning to jail. These women live in a landscape of risk and suffer at the crossroads of their race and gender. These women are some of the most vulnerable people in our society and we must try now to address these alarming rates of incarceration. The number of Indigenous women incarcerated has increased from 104 in 1991 to 370 Indigenous women in 2001 — a 255.8 per cent increase over the decade. For the June 2002 quarter, Indigenous women were overrepresented at 19.6 times the non-Indigenous rate compared with Indigenous men at 15.2 times. Election-driven law-and-order campaigns primed to drive up incarceration, a lack of government action to implement the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, and lack of judicial activism to implement the recommendations of the Royal Commission on non-custodial sentences are some ongoing causes of over representation. I call for release programs to address: * Transitional housing after release. * Community-based, Indigenous-specific programs to help women deal with the effects of violence and to develop alternative strategies for coping with future violence. * Support for women to maintain contact with their children while they are incarcerated or regular information about the well-being of their children. * Programs which are sensitive to the kinship obligations of Indigenous women and supportive of these roles. * Financial issues, employment, education and training. * Access to health services, including drug abuse rehabilitation. Overview Re-offending rates: Recidivism rates are extremely high in all States and Territories. Three in every four of all Indigenous prisoners had been previously imprisoned. Types of crime: There has been a steady and significant increase in most categories of offences — including homicide, assault and related offences and robbery. Nationally, Indigenous women comprise nearly 80 per cent of all cases where women are detained in police custody for public drunkenness. Over-policing: There are indications of over-policing of Indigenous women in some areas. In NSW, the Select Committee into the increase in Prison Population found in 2001 that the most significant contributing factor to increases in incarceration of Indigenous women was the increase in the remand population. There was no evidence to suggest that an increase in actual crime accounted for the prison increase. Sentencing patterns: Indigenous women tend to receive shorter sentences than non-Indigenous women do. The rates suggest that Indigenous women are not being provided with non-custodial sentencing options. Shorter sentences also appear to be linked to high rates of incarceration for public order offences. Characteristics of imprisoned women: In general, Indigenous women in jail are slightly younger than non- Indigenous women. There are no national figures for prisoners with children, but most incarcerated women are mothers. Indigenous women often enter custody with poor physical or mental health. Research in Victoria has revealed that many women self-harm soon after release from prison. This includes drug overdose and other types of self-harm. In NSW in comparison to a non-Indigenous woman, an Aboriginal woman is: * Four times more likely to be murdered. * More than twice as likely to be the victim of sexual assault, or sexual assault against children. * Four times more likely to be a victim of assault. * Seven times more likely to be a victim of grievous bodily harm.
* * **Dr Bill Jonas is an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner. Acknowledgements: Koori Mail, March 2003.