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Australia: "a mass imprisonment crisis", why more women are doing time

Changes to state bail laws intended to target violent men have instead contributed to an alarming growth in the female prison population in Australia.

A new report by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare found that women in prison have experienced disproportionately high rates of homelessness and insecure housing, mental health issues, drug and alcohol addiction, chronic illness, and physical trauma. And just 17% of female prisoners have finished year 12.

Although women and girls make up just 8% of the total prison population in Australia, the female prison population increased 64% between 2009 and 2019, while the male prison population grew by 45%.

Like Davis, 33% of the women and girls in jail in Australia are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, compared with 28% of the male prison population.

“Australia is in the midst of a mass imprisonment crisis,” says Monique Hurley, the legal director for the Human Rights Law Centre. “Too often, discriminatory laws and excessive police powers form a toxic combination that results in more and more women being separated from their families and funnelled into the prison system.”

The numbers of women in prison are growing worldwide. Between 2000 and 2016 the number of women in prison increased by 53%, growing at twice the rate of the total prison population and more than twice the rate of the general population.

In Australia, researchers have identified two possible causes for the increase: either women are suddenly committing more serious crimes and therefore getting more jail time, or laws and policing practices have shifted so that minor crimes are now met with more severe penalties.

The tightening of bail laws, use of mandatory sentencing, and a shift for longer sentences for drug offences are among the reasons that the female prison population may be increasing, says the president of the Australian Law Council, Pauline Wright.

Hurley says that is the case in Victoria, where an “onerous, dangerous and discriminatory bail system” that was intended to target violent men has instead disproportionately impacted impoverished women.

Anna Ritson, the head of justice and education at the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), says it is possible that policy changes intended to increase community safety, like tighter bail laws, have resulted in more women being imprisoned.

“Whenever policy parameters are changed, whether they are at a national or state level, it’s only when those policies are enacted, despite all and every effort being made to understand the impact of those changes, that you can see some of the perverse impacts that they may have,” Ritson says. “So while there might be favourable outcomes for most people, there will always be some who are disproportionately negatively impacted and I think that absolutely can contribute to women being incarcerated at a higher rate than they have been before”.

The AIHW report is based on interviews with 20% of all women who entered or exited prisons in every Australian jurisdiction except New South Wales during a two-week period in 2018.

It found that women in prison overwhelmingly came from disadvantaged backgrounds and had histories of poverty, domestic violence, social deprivation and childhood trauma.

“It’s really rare that imprisonment, experiences of violence, insecure housing, and those kinds of things happen alone,” says Ritson. “They often happen in tandem. And so what we’ve tried to do by putting out this report is to shed a light on just how many of these vulnerabilities these women experience.”

Responses collated from 117 women found that the highest level of education most women had attained was year 10 or a trade certificate. One in four were unemployed and looking for work in the 30 days prior to being incarcerated, and just 15% were in full or part-time work or study. Some 27% were in short-term or emergency accomodation in the month before entering prison, and 7% were sleeping rough or in a squat.

The number of people presenting at homelessness services who have been recently released from prison has also increased, says Ritson.

“So there’s an issue at intake and there is also an issue at exit,” she says. “It’s important to consider a custodial setting as part of the community because people are often incarcerated for quite short periods of time, and they will be released back into the community at some point. It’s important that the needs of those people, particularly women, are considered upon release.”

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