While non-Aboriginal female imprisonment rates are steadily decreasing, across the nation First Nations women are being imprisoned in never-before-seen numbers and rates. In fact, the Australian female imprisonment rates have doubled in the last decade but with First Nations women making up most of the increase.
Sisters Inside CEO, Debbie Kilroy said that First Nations women “are currently the most over-represented population in both Queensland and Australian prisons.” The Northern Territory, Western Australia and Queensland have seen spikes in female incarceration rates that now have First Nations women accounting for more than 33 per cent of all incarcerated women in Australia, while First Nations men account for 28 per cent of all incarcerated men.
“For most of these women, the notion of human rights is unheard of. They have lived all their lives believing that they have no rights at all,” said Ms Kilroy, the founder of Brisbane-based Sisters Inside and who counsels and advocates for women while they are in prison.
A recent forum at NSW Parliament heard that First Nations women are up to 24 times more likely to be imprisoned than non-Aboriginal women. But Ms Kilroy believes that the “differences may be even more severe” and that First Nations women endure among the highest reoffending rates and pronounced victimisations.
“While the over-representation of Indigenous men and women in Australia is unacceptable, these high rates highlight that the incarceration rates of Indigenous women can no longer be overlooked.”
“Nationally, the increase in incarceration rates between 2000 to 2010 is greater for Indigenous women than any other group. There was a 58.6% increase in incarceration for Indigenous women, 35.2% for Indigenous men, 22.4% increase for non-Indigenous women and only a 3.6% increase for non-Indigenous men. This highlights that not only are Indigenous women the most over-represented population in prison, but they also have the fastest increasing rate of incarceration,” said Ms Kilroy.
“Indigenous women are also more likely to return to prison than non-Indigenous women. A study of incarcerated women revealed that 67% of all Indigenous women in prison had been incarcerated previously, while almost half this number of non-Indigenous women had a history of incarceration. This indicates that once incarcerated the ‘correctional system’ is not meeting the needs of Indigenous women and failing to provide the services and support they need to prevent further incarceration.”
The forum at NSW Parliament spewed out at long last what Ms Kilroy has been saying for years. Criminologist, Professor Eileen Baldry said the incarceration rates of First Nations women are “unconscionable.”
“The women’s incarceration rate has risen much faster than the male incarceration rate and we can see that Indigenous women account for almost all of the increase,” said Professor Baldry.
As Ms Kilroy has often said, Professor Baldry said to the forum that far too many First Nations women before having served time for a crime had been victims of crime.
“There are quite significant rates of violence against Aboriginal women. There are significant experiences of use of drug and alcohol often to address those traumas. Larger numbers of Aboriginal women are experiencing homelessness and are experiencing cognitive impairment, sometimes from accidents, sometimes from foetal alcohol spectrum disorder.”
“It’s usually petty offending. There are large numbers of Aboriginal women eventually incarcerated for driving offences, shop lifting.”
But Professor Baldry said short prison sentences for minor offending makes little difference. Australia’s first Aboriginal magistrate, Pat O’Shane said that short sentences are doomed to fail. Ms O’Shane said that “education programs that might ever be available in prison are going to be pretty much worthless” with short sentences.
“Anything under 12 months in my view is utterly useless,” said Ms O’Shane.
Ms O’Shane said there are sentencing alternatives to short prison spells but she castigated her former judicial colleagues for this.
“There are some however who are simply malicious. They’re there. Make no mistake about it.”
“And they have very deep prejudices – not only in respect of race but also in respect of gender.”
In general, jails as we know them, do not work – they do not address the problems.