Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are the fastest growing prison population in Australia.
A new report has shed light on the alarming rate at which the Indigenous women are being incarcerated in Australia, raising concern over the “immeasurable harm” caused by the situation and urging authorities to put an end to “cycles of disadvantage” that systematically suppress Indigenous women.
According to the report, titled “Over-represented and overlooked: the crisis of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women’s growing over imprisonment,” since 1991, the imprisonment rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women increased by 248 percent. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people make up only 2 percent of the adult Australian population, but make up around 27 percent of the adult prison population.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are currently imprisoned at 21 times the rate of non-Indigenous women. By the end of June 2016, there were 1,062 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in Australian prisons, making up a staggering 34 percent of the adult female prison population.
Adrianne Walters, Acting Director of Legal Advocacy, HRLC, told the Guardian, “Imprisoning women, even when it’s for a short time on remand, causes a lot of upheaval not only in the lives of women but also their children.”
“Some 80 percent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in prison are mothers … so when we take Aboriginal women out of communities and out of families and into prisons, we are causing huge disruptions and we’re increasing the risk that their children will end up in the child protection system or potentially in the criminal justice system,” Walters said.
The report, released by the Human Rights Law Center and Change the Record Coalition, states that the criminal justice system that mostly identifies groups such as women in general and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men is not designed to serve the Indigenous women who are often marginalized by the system as they dwell at the intersection of these groups.
Assault is the most common offense recorded for most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in prison. According to Walters, a majority of the crimes are related to domestic violence. Indigenous women in Western Australia are imprisoned at twice the national average, and nearly 90 percent of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women imprisoned in Western Australia have been victims of family violence, the report states.
Traffic violations also account for major portion of prosecutions of Indigenous women, and the government in Western Australia recently promised to scrap the practice of jailing for fines.
According to Walters, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women were the least likely to find secure housing after leaving prison, which often led to them either living on the streets or returning to households with domestic violence. And as a result, the women were unable to provide a secure home for their children.
“What we’re doing is essentially condemning future generations to cycles of entrenched disadvantage and offending,” Walters said. “If we’re really serious about closing the gap, we need to be closing the gap on women’s imprisonment rates.”
The lack of adequate data makes it even more challenging to monitor the deeper issues.
The report also provides a blueprint with the aim to help the Indigenous women cope and rehabilitate. Among many recommendations, the report recommended the federal, state and territory governments develop consistent data collection systems that track Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women’s trajectory through criminal justice systems based on race, sex, gender identity, intersex status, age, disability, socioeconomic status and family responsibilities.
Another proposal asks the government to look into Gladue reports, Canadian-style pre-sentencing reports that provide a detailed, generational account of a person’s life and trauma to better inform the judge.
Recently, the Australian government was criticized for the lack of justice programs for the Indigenous people in the country.
Antoinette Braybrook, co-chair of the Change the Record Coalition and convener of the National Family Violence Prevention Legal Services Forum, told the Guardian, “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are invisible to policymakers and decision-makers, and we see that playing out here.”
“This is despite Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women being the fastest growing prison population in our country and the most legally disadvantaged. Ninety per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in prison have experienced family violence and 80% are mothers. Something must be done,” Braybrook added.