Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are the fastest growing segment of the prisoner population, report finds
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are the fastest growing segment of the prisoner population and are 21 times more likely to be imprisoned than non-Indigenous women.
But rates of female Indigenous imprisonment, which have increased 248% since the 1991 final report into the royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody, are often overlooked in broader discussions because they are subsumed by larger statistics around Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men, according to a report released on Monday.
The report by the Human Rights Law Centre and the Change the Record Coalition found that the lack of data on female Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners and lack of specific initiatives to help Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women allowed the imprisonment rate to increase.
That, in turn, had a significant knock-on effect on the lives of children and other family members, the report said.
“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,” Adrianne Walters from the Human Rights Law Centre told Guardian Australia.
“Some 80% 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.
“What we’re doing is essentially condemning future generations to cycles of entrenched disadvantage and offending.”
Walters said that 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. It also meant they were not able to provide a secure home for their children.
“So you’re really fracturing families and you’re creating the conditions in which women are more likely to return to offending, often out of desperation, and also creating the conditions in which children lead really disrupted lives and are more likely to end up in the child protection system and the criminal justice system,” she said. “If we’re really serious about closing the gap, we need to be closing the gap on women’s imprisonment rates.”
The primary offence of most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in prison is assault and Walters said the majority of those crimes are believed to be related to domestic violence.
About 90% of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in prison in Western Australia have been the victim of family violence, the report said, and nationally the figure is believed to be between 70 to 90%.
Walters said cases such as the death of Yamatji woman Ms Dhu, and the police response to domestic violence reported by WA woman Tamica Mullaley, showed that police prioritised a punitive response to minor offending by Indigenous women over their history of domestic violence.
Dhu died in police custody in August 2014 of injuries caused by domestic violence. Her symptoms were dismissed as being either made-up or drug-related in what the WA coroner found was “unprofessional and inhumane” treatment by some of the police officers responsible for her care.
Mullaley was found naked and injured by a road after being bashed by her partner in Broome in 2013. She was agitated and kicked the responding police officer in the chest, prompting them to charge her with assault.
While she was being treated in hospital and processed for that crime, her partner abducted, raped and murdered her 10-month-old son.
A later report by the Corruption and Crime Commission found that police were distracted by Mullaley’s aggressive behaviour and made assumptions about the cause of her behaviour, both of which prevented them from responding sooner to the abduction of her son.
“In both cases Aboriginal women were involved and police responded in a particular way based on assumptions as to why these women were behaving in a way that the police described as difficult, rather than assessing the actual situation,” Walters said.
The report recommended that state and territory governments invest in community-led prevention and early intervention programs to reduce violence against women.
It also recommended that states and territories identify and remove laws to identify those that disproportionately criminalise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, like being jailed for fines, and that each jurisdiction establish a mandatory custody notification scheme similar to the model used in New South Wales.
Among the 15 other recommendations is a proposal to investigate Canadian-style pre-sentencing reports, called Gladue reports for the supreme court case that established them, which provide a detailed, generational account of a person’s life and trauma to better inform the judge.
The McGowan government in WA, where Indigenous women are imprisoned at twice the national average rate, has promised to scrap the practice of jailing for fines after Dhu’s death but has not committed to introducing a custody notification scheme, despite offers of federal funding.
Antoinette Braybrook, Co-Chair of the Change the Record Coalition and Convener of the National Family Violence Prevention Legal Services Forum, said there would be no improvement in increasing incarceration rates of women until governments set justice targets.
“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are invisible to policy makers and decision makers, and we see that playing out here,” she said.
“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.”
Dhu’s grandmother, Carol Roe, said her granddaughter and those like her should never be locked up.
“She’s lying in the graveyard and we’re still waiting for justice,” she said. “She should never have been locked up. If there were proper and fair laws in place, she would be with us today.”