Crime and punishment: Women in Australian prison

Incarceration rates have surged with critics saying prisons are failing to rehabilitate and reintegrate offenders.

    Crime and punishment: Women in Australian prison
    Annette Bates was incarcerated for three years for drug and driving offences [Royce Kurmelovs/Al Jazeera]

    Adelaide, Australia - Late on a Friday afternoon in a small hall behind the Church in Port Adelaide, a small group of women is helping to pack up.

    Among them is Annette Bates, a member of Seeds of Affinity, a support group for women transitioning out of prison that meets twice a week.

    Bates was 23 the first time she entered Adelaide Women's Prison, a facility about half-an-hour north of the city that sits next door to the men's Yatala Labour Prison.

    In 1996, she was convicted of a drug offence after being picked up in a sting by police who were looking for information on a local drug dealer.

    "I got two-and-a-half years for a $100 deal," Bates said.

    Until that point in her life Bates had largely stayed out of trouble. She had been working in elderly care centres since she was 16 and had managed to support herself. But prison, she said, was a whole new world.

    "There's no colours, there's no pictures, there's no nothing. It's just like a factory," she said.

    In the women's prison, inmates are housed in dormitories with no segregation between serious or minor crime offenders. Those serving time for repeated unpaid fines mix with murderers serving life sentences.

     Web of hate

    "It's all in, one in," Bates said, explaining how prison was also the place where she first used hard drugs.

    "They put you in prison with the best of the best. So you're in there - and of course you learn new tricks."

    Low risk, high need

    Bates' story is one among a growing number of imprisoned women.

    Last year, Australia's total prison population grew 10 percent, hitting a 10-year high of 33,791 inmates. During the same period, un-sentenced prisoners held on remand also grew by 11 percent.

    Growing numbers in Australian prisons have only added pressure on the country's criminal justice system, which is already struggling with ageing facilities, under-funding, and overcrowding.

    For women in the justice system, the effect is multiplied.

    "Women are low risk, high need," said Linda Fisk, founder of Seeds of Affinity. "Men are low need, high risk. So if you don't give men what they need, they'll jack up and burn the place down. Women don't do that."

    "So they just keep piling it on. They'll take it away from the women to give to the men."

    Fisk, a former prisoner herself, also highlighted prison policy that separates incarcerated mothers from their newborn babies, and prevents them from breastfeeding.

    Then there are the strip searches.

    As many female prisoners have experienced sexual assault or domestic violence at some time in their lives, Fisk said the routine use of strip searches in prison is more harmful than effective.

    "The strip search is another use of control and fear," Fisk said. "Many women don't have their visits because they can't deal with the strip search. If you've been abused as a child, or raped, you know a strip search is a big deal.

    There's an appalling lack of education. If the aim is to prevent women from recycling through the prison system, a key element is self-esteem.

    Heather Stokes, criminal defence lawyer

    "It's just not conducive to any sort of healing."


    A related issue for criminal defence lawyer Heather Stokes is access to education, rehabilitation programmes, and counselling services for prisoners.

    When contacted, the Department of Corrections told Al Jazeera in a statement it runs several such initiatives.

    "The department delivers a range of rehabilitation and reintegration programs across the South Australian Prison system, ranging from crisis intervention, support services, and therapeutic programmes targeting offending behaviours, to education and vocational training."

    Still, Stokes is critical of the quality and limited range of these services. The education programmes in particular, Stokes said, focus too heavily on basic numeracy and literacy, and so focus too narrowly on the needs of only a portion of the prison population.

    "There's an appalling lack of education," Stokes said. "If the aim is to prevent women from recycling through the prison system, a key element is self-esteem."

    "You give them enough self-esteem to at least give them a crack at getting on with life and make them much better equipped, mentally, to do so."

    Radical rethink

    Around Australia over the last decade, "tough on crime" political platforms have formed an integral part of election campaigns.

    As a result, more public money has flowed to law enforcement while less has been available for prisoner services.

    Rick Sarre, a University of South Australia Law School professor, said money is only part of the problem.

    "The controllers of prisons are somewhat hamstrung," Sarre said. "It is a funding issue, but a funding issue comes in the form of priorities. It's not a priority because people have no time for prisoners - unless they have family in one.

    "You ask anyone on the street if they think prison should be tougher, they'll say 'yes'."

    Some, such as criminal defence lawyer Debbie Kilroy, are working to change this.

    Kilroy, also a former prisoner, is the founder of Sisters Inside, a prison advocacy group based in Queensland state.

    The answer to the rising imprisonment rate for her organisation is not to build new prisons, but a radical rethink of the criminal justice system.

    "If you have empty beds, they'll fill them," Kilroy said. "You build more prisons, you have more people incarcerated. As an organisation, we don't believe in prisons... Prisons are just places to keep people who are homeless, mentally ill, or black."

    Trauma and abuse

    Prisons are just places to keep people who are homeless, mentally ill, or black.

    Debbie Kilroy, Sisters Inside

    According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the overall incarceration rate in Australia was 156 per 100,000 people last year. The rate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the same period was 2,174.5 per 100,000.

    Organisations such as the South Australian Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement (ALRM) say if this trend continues, there may come a time when an entire generation of Aboriginal people are defined by their experience with the prison system.

    "We are 24 more times likely to be imprisoned," ALRM Chief Executive Cheryl Axelby said. "And once you're in, you're in."

    The cause, Axelby said, is both the personal and intergenerational trauma suffered among Aboriginal communities, particularly for Aboriginal women.

    "A lot of people that go into the justice system have a reason ... and a lot of it is trauma and some form of abuse that they may have experienced in their early childhood," she said. "So why are we not treating that and providing opportunities for people to heal from that?"

    Back to normality

    "I'm no angel, but I'm no thug either," Bates said reflecting on her past. "I think I was an idiot, but I can't change it. What's done is done."

    After her first stint in prison in 1996, Bates picked up her life, finding a job as a courier when surgery on her back kept her from working in aged care.

    But about two years ago, she went back to prison for five months for driving offences.

    Now 42, leaving prison the second time has been more difficult.

    "I can understand why women continuously go back," Bates said. "It's easier to live there. The first time to come out was great, to get work was great. But this time, I've come out to have no job, no car, no license. I've lost a lot of confidence."

    Worse yet, she said, the world has gone online since the last time Bates had to look for work. She does not own a computer, let alone know how to use one.

    "What I need is work," Bates said. "I've worked since I was 13, I've always had my own money. I just want normality back, whatever it looks like."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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