Unfinished business: Aboriginal women in Victorian prisons

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The number of Aboriginal women in Victorian prisons is low, but they now make up the fastest growing segment of our prison population. A new report from the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission shines a light on their experiences before, after and in prison. It finds a common profile: young mothers who have grown up experiencing family violence, sexual abuse and intergenerational trauma and often experience homelessness before and after prison.

Acting Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commissioner Chris Humphreys outlines the report’s findings, and calls for a better and tailored approach to prevention and diversion.

The illustration for this article comes from the cover of the Unfinished Business report: The Tree of Equality, by Joanne Dwyer and Lauran Thompson, which was commissioned by the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission in 2001.

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It has been 20 years since the report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. Sadly, in that time the proportion of Australian prisoners who are Indigenous has almost doubled.

While this is an issue other states are struggling with, in Victoria we have the benefit of the Aboriginal Justice Agreement, which provides a unique framework for government to address this over-representation of Koori people in the justice system.

In 2012, an independent evaluation of the AJA2 found that the rates of imprisonment of Koori women were increasing and had overtaken those of non-Koori women.

Imprisonment has a disproportionate impact on these women and their families, but culturally and gender appropriate diversionary options are yet to be established in Victoria.

As a commitment under the Aboriginal Justice Agreement 3, the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission undertook research to document Koori women’s experiences of the justice system, particularly their experiences of custody, to provide evidence to support the implementation of diversionary programs for Koori women.

Our investigation

The Commission wanted to begin by investigating the experiences of Koori women and the issues they face in particular, where they differ from Koori men, and from non-Koori women.

We then wanted to identify and provide evidence to the Aboriginal Justice Forum to understand the impact that prison has on Koori women, their children, the family and the community, using equality and human rights as the lens.

The research gathered has formed the basis for our recommendation for the development of culturally appropriate diversion programs for Koori women.

Our research heard directly from women who were either in prison or had been. They spoke to us about their experiences and their views about the services and support they need to break the cycle of offending.

We also sought the views of those that work with Koori women in the justice system, including Victoria Police, Magistrates, prison officers, community organisations and government departments.

The research considered existing available diversionary options and models; gaps in existing mainstream and specialist supports for Koori women at risk of coming into contact, or already in, the criminal justice system; and the key elements and principles that are required for a culturally appropriate diversionary model.

The findings

What we found is hardly surprising. We know that women want more from their lives but that for some, sadly, prison offers a safer environment than that they would have outside it.

We know they want to be able to stay with their children but they are, for a wide range of intersecting reasons, unable to stay out of prison, with many returning again and again.

And perhaps the most disturbing of all is that their first interaction with the Justice system is usually not the police that charge them but much earlier when, as children, they enter child protection or are victims of assault and abuse.

It is this threat of disadvantage being repeated across generations that is one of the most compelling reasons to do something to break the cycle while we can.

What we found is essentially that the life chances for these women outside prison are compounded by the lack of pre-prison diversionary options, in provision of support post-release and in the inability to access employment or education or find safe and affordable housing for themselves and their children when released.

Without these things the risk of re-offending is significantly higher.

We found some common factors among the women – they are generally young and 80 per cent have children.

Many have grown up experiencing family violence, sexual abuse and intergenerational trauma. A significant number were removed from their families as children and placed in out-of-home care. Over 90 per cent have a history of mental illness – including anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder – and drug and alcohol dependence are widespread.

Discrimination is a daily reality for them, across nearly every part of their lives. This is also reflected in their contact with the justice system, where Koories are significantly more likely to come into contact with police than non-Koori men and women.

Breaking the cycle

Once Koori women enter the prison system they are more likely to back again: in 2012, more than half the Koori women in custody had a history of prior offending and imprisonment.

As our research found, many women end up “churning” through the system on multiple occasions, often for relatively short periods of time or on remand. In fact, of the 67 Koori women on remand, 60 per cent were released without being sentenced.

Our report notes that Section 3A of the Bail Act 1997, which requires decision-makers to consider Aboriginality, is under-utilised. This is a significant lost opportunity to address the escalating numbers of Koori women on remand.

So there are a few opportunities in the process to break the cycle: before imprisonment, while in prison and post-release.

At the front end, the role of the police is very important in diverting women away from prison where possible. As the people who effectively recommend offenders to the Court for the Criminal Justice Diversion Program, the Victoria Police members have the capacity to contribute to a greater use of diversion for Koori women, but it tends to be an under-utilised option.

Other successful initiatives have been established in Victoria for diverting Koori men and other groups away from the prison system, but there remains a lack of effective diversion options for Koori women.

Effective diversion also requires a safe place to live. The lack of pre- (and post) sentence residential options is a significant barrier to Koori women staying out of jail and/or being placed on remand and again, while there are some residential options available for men completing Community Corrections Orders, there are none for women.

We also found that some Koori women are refused bail because there is a chronic under-supply of safe accommodation that they can be bailed to. This can mean that there is the unfortunate situation where prison or remand can serve as a relatively safe place for a woman to be while she ‘dries out.’

There is only one residential program available in Victoria that encompasses Koori people’s cultural needs – the Wulgunggo Ngalu Learning Place, but it is only available to Koori men.

When provided, culturally appropriate residential diversion enjoys strong success rates, with over 90 per cent of Koori men successfully completing the program.

Once they are in prison, again Koori women appear not to be using programs on offer, largely because there is a lack of culturally appropriate services in prison for them.

While examples of such services do exist, women told us these are infrequently run, have eligibility restrictions, such as not being open to women on remand, and waiting lists which don’t work for those on short sentences.

Upon release from prison, services are fragmented, under-resourced and hard to navigate.

While there are some transitional services that begin in prison and continue to support people on the outside, these are limited in the support they can offer Koori women due to restrictions on eligibility for those on remand.

There are no culturally and gender appropriate support services, specifically for Koori women once they are released from prison and the rigidity of bail requirements impacts on their prospects for rehabilitation.

Most of all, again, a lack of appropriate housing after prison drives reoffending so post-release accommodation is an urgent priority.

Costs of inaction

So why, people may ask is it worth worrying about programs that ‘only’ affect 30 or so women?

It’s because the numbers are growing rapidly; because they can be reduced with appropriate investment and because, if we don’t do something about it, the rate of Koori women entering prison will continue to increase.

Repeated imprisonment can fundamentally disrupt the relationship between Koori women and their children, especially as their children grow and their needs change. It places these children at a much greater likelihood of contact with the child protection system, which in turn is a major risk factor in putting the next generation of Koori young people on a pathway to prison.

It also creates avoidable economic costs to the Victorian community.

Recommendations

The most sustainable and comprehensive way to reduce the over-representation of Koori women in prison is to establish a “hub and spoke” model of diversion and post release services, where Koori women can step up and step down supports they need at any particular time, without losing continuity.

A residential service, developed with a community-centred methodology, would act as the ‘hub’. It could be used by women on bail, those on Community Corrections Orders and post-release.

It would be closely linked to a range of “spokes”, including drug and alcohol treatment services, further post-release residential options, as well as case management, trauma, family support and other services.

Such a model would address the fragmentation that causes so many difficulties for Koori women. It would deliver joined-up services, across all the diversionary domains, in a culturally appropriate way.

The report makes 29 recommendations to agencies across government, including Victoria Police, Magistrates’ Court, Corrections Victoria, Justice Health, Department of Justice, Department of Human Services, and the Commissioner for Aboriginal Children and Young People.

The recommendations address over-representation of Koori women across the criminal justice system, as well as specific recommendations regarding the establishment of a culturally and gender appropriate model of diversion (that is, the hub and spoke).

The Commission also recommends further investment in transitional housing for women on bail and post release; improving access to treatment and services in prison for Koori women on remand and short sentences, and increasing the availability and cultural competency of post release services.

As a commitment under the Aboriginal Justice Agreement 3, the Commission will work with the Aboriginal Justice Forum to progress the implementation of these recommendations.

The time is now right to invest in gender and culturally appropriate diversionary services for Koori women and reduce the harm to the women, their children and the community.

Case study: Joanne

I have been in prison six times. I have four children in DHS care and I’m currently eight months pregnant. I am in prison on remand. I returned to prison for theft and breach of parole.

Parole is too hard to deal with. Next time, I want straight release. Parole places too many conditions on you and I can’t manage. I have to go to drug and alcohol counselling, meet with my parole officer twice a week and provide urine tests. This is all on top of my conditions that I have to meet with DHS to see my kids once a month. I need support services to help me, like pick me up and take me to appointments.

I never want to go on parole again, I’d rather do my sentence.

A lot of girls are in here because of breach of parole. We have no stable housing and no family. A lot of girls have no family because they are either not from Victoria or their families have disowned them because of what they do.

I have my mum but since I lost my kids things have got a lot worse. I feel like there is no use without them and I keep on using drugs.

I was released earlier in the year. Konnect were the service who I was told would help me, but they didn’t call me once I was out.

I really needed help with getting housing. I can’t get my kids back without a house. If you don’t have a house you’re stuffed. 2008 was the last time I had a house. I’ve had nothing but prison. I don’t want to leave here (prison) until I get a house.

When I get out I reconnect with the wrong girls and start stealing again to support my habit. This is what brings me back to prison. I need supported housing to get my life back.

With this baby, I have put in an application to ‘Mother and Baby’ to keep this baby with me. Because I am on remand I don’t get access to any other services, only the Aboriginal Wellbeing Officer here at the prison.

I need to be sentenced to get Konnect or WISP on release. This time I want straight release. I never want parole again.

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