Aboriginal Women in the Australian Prison System

By Elizabeth Grant and Sarah Paddick
Sebastien Bergeron, Getty

Aboriginal women are the fastest growing sector of the prison population in Australia. Over the last 10 years, the female prison population has increased by 60 per cent (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2013). Aboriginal women are massively overrepresented in the prison population. While approximately two percent of the Australian female population identify as being of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent, Indigenous women make up one third of the female prison population. Offences committed by Aboriginal women are commonly those associated with extreme poverty, such as non-payment of fines, shop-lifting, driving and alcohol related offences and welfare fraud (Baldry 2013). Over the last 10 years there have been, however, significant increases in imprisonment for offences such as robbery, theft, assault and homicide.

Almost all Aboriginal women in prison come from economically and disadvantaged backgrounds. The majority of women prisoners are themselves victims of crime, with many being the survivors of physical and sexual abuse. Most were in care as a child, with many having experienced childhood sexual assault and imprisonment. Most women were unemployed prior to incarceration with few having completed secondary education. Many Aboriginal women experience sexual abuse and racism at an early age, have repeated failures at school and come from families where excessive alcohol use, substance abuse, offending and violence are behavioural norms (Baldry et al. 2009). Larger numbers of Aboriginal women are coming into prison having experienced homelessness and having cognitive impairments (commonly from traumatic events such as vehicle accidents or domestic violence), sometimes from foetal alcohol spectrum disorder (Grant 2014).

Prisons for Women

The needs of women and especially those of Aboriginal women have not been traditionally met by Australian prison systems. In general, women’s prisons have been developed from models designed for men. The philosophies of incarceration, the mode of containment in overly secure prison environments, prison rules and regulations have always run counter to the needs of women (Grant 2014).

The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody was a landmark event in Australian history. The Royal Commission highlighted Aboriginal disadvantage and issues such as racism, alienation, poverty and powerlessness all which shown to contribute to the disproportionate numbers of Aboriginal people imprisoned (Commonwealth of Australia 1991). The deaths of eleven Aboriginal women were investigated by the Royal Commission as part of the proceedings. The tragedy was that all the women suffered destitution, alcoholism and hopelessness. Despite the considerable issues that these women and others face in prison, the Royal Commission did not include specific references to their needs (Grant 2014).

Some of the issues faced by imprisoned Aboriginal women are simple. The maintenance of family ties has always been seen as important by women prisoners. Women have indicated that support from “significant others” (within and outside the prison) is essential to cope with the prison experience. Many women prisoners are also mothers. They are highly likely to be the primary caregiver for their children and also are unlikely to have been cohabiting with a partner prior to their imprisonment, and are thus the most significant person in the lives of their children (Paddick 2011). The geographic isolation of many prisons isolates women prisoners and precludes many families from regular and sustained visits affecting the welfare of the women and the children left behind. Physical access has been commonly further hampered by lack of public transport where prisons are located.

The Development of Women’s Centred Approaches

Despite Australia’s considerable history of incarceration, it has only been in recent decades that there has been little distinction in terms of policy between female prisoners and their male counterparts. Commonly, programs and environments for women offenders have been equivalent to those provided for men. Internationally the situation has been similarly dire. In Canada, a series of horrific events at Kingston Women’s Prison and the death of seven women in prison in a 15 month period led to the appointment of a government task force to develop prison and policies more responsive to the specific needs of women and the beginnings of the “women’s centred approach” (Grant 2014).

Across Canada, five new women’s prisons were opened as a result. These were based on the principles that women require respectful and dignified prison environments where they can be empowered to make meaningful and responsible choices. The concept of a “healing lodge” was advocated for Aboriginal offenders. This was to offer Aboriginal women prison environments and programs that reflected Aboriginal peoples’ cultures, traditions and beliefs. It was proposed that the needs of Aboriginal prisoners would be addressed through Aboriginal teachings, participation in ceremony, contact with Elders, family and children and through interaction with nature. The Okimaw Ohci Healing Lodge, in Saskatchewan was designed and attempts to operate based on these principles. Daily, women at Okimaw Ohci gather to participate in the morning smudge in the circular lodge built as a soaring timber structure with a central fireplace. Okimaw Ohci contains both single and family residential units and children stay with their mothers (Paddick 2011). The Buffalo Sage Wellness House (Edmonton, Alberta) was opened as a minimum and medium security and community residential facility for Aboriginal women on conditional release in the community.

Internationally, the “women centred approach” has received considerable attention. A number of Australian states and territories developed strategic plans to attempt to meet the needs of women. In Western Australia for example, the Department of Corrective Services acknowledged that they must acknowledge and respond to the needs of women. The development of Boronia Women’s Pre-Release Centre as minimum security accommodation for 70 low security women came from the desire of the Department of Corrective Services WA to create a world’s best practice women’s correctional facility (Bartels and Gaffney 2011). Boronia Pre-release Centre houses minimum-security women and their children in separate units within a community-style setting and are responsible for their own cooking, cleaning, budgeting and grocery shopping at the Centre’s supermarket. Babies up to the age of four can live with their mothers at Boronia while children up to 12 years can stay overnight and there is parenting help to assist mothers. Interestingly, Boronia Pre-Release Centre has the highest visit rate of all WA prisons and the recidivism rate of women released from the institution is less than one-third of the national average (Paddick 2011).

Across Australia there have also been a number of capital infrastructure projects to upgrade or replace ageing infrastructure. There are commonalities between different Aboriginal groups. Family and kin lie at the core of Aboriginal life and is often the only constant in the lives of Aboriginal people. People generally prefer to live with or within close proximity of their extended family. Maintaining connections to one’s country is vitally important for well-being for most Aboriginal people. As a result of greater cultural understandings, some correctional agencies have attempted to create prison environments and programs to better meet the diverse cultural, environmental and criminological needs of Indigenous prisoners. In Western Australia after some consideration, the Department of Corrective Services instituted a regional prison policy and wherever possible Aboriginal prisoners serve their sentence near their home country and family and kin to reduce the anguish in Aboriginal prisoners’ concerns at being held “out of their country” or under the threat of being sent “out of country”. The West Kimberley Regional Prison opened in 2012, was designed under a community consultation model which recognised Indigenous prisoners’ cultural, kinship, family and community responsibilities and spiritual connections to land.  The prison accommodates 30 female prisoners of varying security classifications in a separate women’s area (Grant 2013).

Understanding and Addressing the Needs of Women

Aboriginal women’s imprisonment often reflects the culmination of the disadvantages experienced by individuals on a daily basis. While some Australian jurisdictions have imbued their women’s programs and facilities with values such as personal development and empowerment, there are considerable issues. The preference of governments to build “super prisons” housing male and female prisoners across all security classifications, result in facilities where the populations of female prisoners are so small that their complex needs are often not met. When one considers prisons for women across Australia, there are few “best practice” precedents.

Boronia Pre-release Centre is an excellent example of a prison which meets the needs of many women prisoners including Aboriginal women. The other more recent initiative in Western Australia, the women’s unit within West Kimberley Regional Prison is yet to be measured and evaluated but does appear to provide opportunities for Aboriginal women to stay on “country” and closer to their families. In New South Wales, older women’s’ facilities such as the Dillwynia Correctional Centre and the Jacaranda Pre-release Units at Emu Plains have commendable features with some “normalised” environments. The Tarrengower Prison (Victoria) would be acceptable if it was located in an accessible location, but apart from these examples, there are few prisons that one could pronounce as suiting the needs of Aboriginal women.

In addition to the lack of appropriate facilities, the majority of the “progressive” efforts have focussed developing minimum and medium security environments for women. Unfortunately, many Aboriginal women entering the prison system are held in maximum security facilities due to the nature of their crimes and are unable to access such facilities.

As well as appropriate facilities, other issues faced by women prisoners urgently need to be addressed. Incarceration removes all sense of power and control that women have over their bodies. Women in prison are likely to be survivors of sexual abuse and domestic violence. Enormous trauma is added through the ritual of strip searches. For many “contact” visits, a woman must go into a room, take off her clothes in front of officers, stand naked and be “inspected.” For many women, especially Aboriginal women the humiliation is too much and they withdraw from outside contact.

The removal of children is also a major issue. Children of prisoners face a high chance of ending up in foster care and experiencing isolation, disruption, dislocation, poverty and even physical and sexual abuse. Many later end up in custody themselves. A woman who has had her children removed may never regain custody over them, let alone rebuild the relationship or overcome her own guilt. Additionally, women are far more likely than men to be released from prison to a broken family and no home and little or no personal or financial support. The separation of Aboriginal women from their children continues past government policies which have acted to marginalise, commodify and devalue Aboriginal women and control every aspect of their lives.

The needs of this vulnerable and marginalised group need to be urgently addressed.

Dr Elizabeth Grant is an architectural anthropologist and a senior lecturer within the Office of the Deputy Vice Chancellor and Vice President (Academic) at the University of Adelaide. She is recognised as an international expert on the design of custodial environments for Indigenous peoples and her work has led to major changes in the way prisons are designed for Indigenous users.

Sarah Paddick is a practising architect with two decades of expertise designing prison and other custodial environments. Her work has been widely acknowledged and she is a recipient of the Catherine Helen Spence Scholarship to explore the design of correctional facilities for women and children internationally.