Justice System Fails Women


By Blake O’Connor and Ugur Nedim

New figures show that more women are being locked up in Australian prisons than ever before, and research suggests the system is failing to protect female inmates from abuse.

We have previously written about the special needs of women who end up in prison, and how a ‘one-size fits all’ approach can lead to injustice and abuse, while doing little to break the cycle of crime.

Statistics and Research

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, there has been a 40% increase in female incarceration rates since 2005 compared to 18% for men, with nearly 75% of the overall increase being for non-violent crimes.

As the Institute of Family Studies notes, not only is there an increase in the number of women being locked-up, but the length of sentence is also increasing, exposing women to a greater possibility of victimisation behind bars including violence and sexual abuse.

Take Mary for example, a Transgender women sent to a male prison for stealing a car. She was held in maximum security with hundreds of violent men, and reports being raped repeatedly over a period of four years.

Sadly, Mary’s story is not uncommon, with inmate abuse a serious issue across Australia. This adds to the high rates of mental illness and distress experienced by women in custody – with 51% reporting high levels of psychosocial distress.

When we look beyond an inmate’s crime, it is evident that most females are victims in their own right: two-thirds have experienced physical violence, over 60% have been subjected to sexual abuse, more than a quarter have attempted suicide and a third have grown up in foster care. All of these are risk factors for offending.

Abuse in prison only compounds the stigmatisation and social alienation of women and, sadly, such abuse is not always at the hands of fellow inmates, but also prison workers.

Take the 2013 case of a male employee at Brisbane Women’s Correctional Centre who was sent to prison for five years after raping multiple inmates. The court found the employee abused his position of power and trust by preying on the women, who all suffered emotional damage as a result. Although concerns were raised at the time of the offending, they were dismissed by Queensland Attorney General, Jarrod Bleijie.

Law Reform

With the increase in female imprisonment rates, many groups are lobbying governments for change.

Some are even asking why so many non-violent offenders need to be incarcerated in the first place, with the Law Council of Australia pointing out that most women could safely serve their sentences in the community under appropriate supervision.

As many studies have shown, ‘tough on crime’ approaches which favour imprisonment over rehabilitation are overwhelmingly counterproductive – doing little to break the cycle of crime.

Diversionary programs, on the other hand, give offenders access to rehabilitation and support services which can address the underlying causes of offending, and help break the cycle of crime.

If reducing crime is important, governments would do well to focus on rehabilitative measures, which are globally accepted as vitally important to a well-balanced criminal justice system.

Imprisoning women can disproportionately impact upon not only them, but also their families. Two-thirds of women in prison are primary caregivers to dependent children. In the case of Indigenous women, the figure is nearly 80%.

Recognising these special difficulties may pave the way for greater emphasis on alternatives to imprisonment when it comes to female offenders, which could help break the cycles of abuse and crime.


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