From Prisoner to Principal Lawyer: An Interview with Debbie Kilroy

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Debbie Kilroy

Queensland attorney-general Yvette D’Ath announced the members of the reinstated Queensland Sentencing Advisory Council on November 10 last year. The council works to advise the state government and Court of Appeal on sentencing matters.

Amongst the ten members of the council is Debbie Kilroy. She was the first convicted criminal to be accepted by the Queensland Supreme Court as a solicitor. The media release said Ms Kilroy would bring her “unique set of experiences” to the workings of the statutory body.

The sting

Kilroy spent stints in juvenile detention whilst growing up, before being sentenced to six years’ imprisonment on drug trafficking charges in 1989. The mother of two was caught selling cannabis during an undercover police sting.

Both her and her husband, former Brisbane Broncos rugby league star “Smokin” Joe Kilroy, were sent to prison. The pair, who smoked cannabis, were selling on the side. But police targeted them as Joe’s brother-in-law, unbeknown to them, was a major supplier at the time.

On the inside

Whilst serving time in Brisbane’s notorious Boggo Road Gaol, Kilroy witnessed the brutal murder of her friend Debbie Dick.

The murder caused prison authorities to reappraise conditions in the overcrowded prison and led to the establishment of prisoner committees that engaged female inmates in the running of the facility. Debbie was actively involved with the committees.

Former inmate turned lawyer

During her time in prison, Kilroy undertook a degree in social work at the University of Queensland. But after her release, she turned her eye to law. In 2007, she became the first convicted drug trafficker in the country to be admitted as a lawyer.

Today, Kilroy is the principal lawyer at her own law firm in Brisbane.

Sisters Inside

Following her release, Kilroy set up the prisoner advocacy organisation Sisters Inside. The independent community group advocates for “the human rights of women within the criminal justice system,” and seeks to address the gaps in services available to them.

Along with actively campaigning for the rights of women inmates, the group runs a number of programs including a sexual assault counselling service, a service to help young people whose mothers are imprisoned, as well as a program for women being released from prison who are primary caregivers.

Prison abolition

Kilroy is also an outspoken prison abolitionist. She spoke at the Is Prison Obsolete? conference in Brisbane last year. Amongst the other keynote speakers was US activist and academic Angela Davis, who calls for decarceration and a justice system based on reparation and reconciliation.

So it can be presumed that Kilroy won’t be calling for tougher or mandatory sentencing in her new role on the Sentencing Advisory Council.

Sydney Criminal Lawyers® spoke with the chief executive of Sisters Inside Debbie Kilroy about her experiences on the inside, the issues incarcerated women face and the abolition of prisons.

So Debbie you’re the chief executive of Sisters Inside. Can you tell us about what your organisation does?

Sisters Inside is an independent non-government organisation which exists to advocate for the human rights of women and girls in the criminal justice system.

We do so alongside the women, which basically means that – because of the way Sisters Inside was established, which was with women in prison, when I was released from prison – there’s a steering committee that’s made up of women in prison that are part of our management committee that drive the agenda. So we’re very grassroots.

Sisters Inside has developed its own model for delivering domestic and family violence and sexual assault services in prison. Can you outline what this entails?

We aren’t specifically funded to provide domestic and family violence services. But because the high majority of women in prison are victims of domestic and family violence, of course, we need to address those issues.

We’re funded to provide sexual assault counselling, because 89 percent of women in prison have been sexually abused before they’ve hit the prison gates.

And they continue to be sexually abused by the state through the legislative process of strip searching after any contact type visits. So women are re-traumatized over and over again.

Our sexual assault counsellors will work with women. Our programs for mothers and children will work with women around those violence issues. Because you can’t do the work without addressing the violence that’s been perpetrated.

In 1989, you were sentenced to six year’s imprisonment on drug trafficking charges, which you served at Boggo Road Gaol. How would you describe your experience on the inside?

I was in and out of juvenile when I was a kid, so it was really just an extension of that life journey. As a child being locked up, when I was thirteen, in what we call a youth prison now, it was highly traumatic. There’s been a number of investigations into those institutions to expose the trauma.

It was really just a pipeline from there. Youth prison to the adult system for the majority of us, because we really didn’t know anything else. We were highly institutionalised.

Of course, it was something I didn’t want to do, because I was looking at mandatory life at that time, but got sentenced to six years, after a plea deal. Charges were dropped that I actually wasn’t guilty for and then I did plead guilty to the charges that I was guilty for and I got six years.

But prior to that, I was looking at a mandatory life sentence. That’s what I was going to court to fight the day before plea deals were made.

It was going back to an institution again that I was very familiar with, because prisons are prison are prisons.

When I went in that time, I was very clear that instead of rebelling against the system – which I did when I was a kid and I was locked in isolation the majority of the time – I decided that before I got sentenced that I would use the time to further my education.

Yes, so during that time in prison you undertook a degree in social work at the University of Queensland. Are educational opportunities accessible for women in prison today?

No, because the prison is massively overcrowded. And again, if we build more prisons, they will be overcrowded again and again. Building more prisons doesn’t actually alleviate the issue of imprisonment, so that’s why we don’t agree with the building of prisons.

There’s ten women in the adult women’s prison here in Brisbane – that now has nearly 400 women in it – that actually can study full time, and they do it by correspondence.

When I did it, I could go out to university on leaves of absence, but that no longer exists. It was all repealed in legislation.

So we’ve been advocating for a long time that leave of absence needs to be available for people in prison to attend educational institutions to get an education and further their education. Because I’m a firm believer that education gives us so many more choices in life.

And we need to educate people when we know that a lot of people in prison don’t even have a year ten level of education. Many can’t even read and write, particularly Aboriginal people, so it’s a huge issue.

And what are the conditions like for women detained within the prison system today?

They’re quite horrific. The ombudsman here in Queensland tabled a report back in September/October last year about the overcrowding. Apparently 12-18 months prior, the ombudsman had contacted Corrective Services to give them some time to sort the issues out.

And they just got worse, so that’s why he wrote a public report and tabled it.

So mass overcrowding, women don’t get access to health services, women who are on safety orders don’t get assessed for health issues, where they must within the Corrective Services Act, a lack of programs – all those issues.

We know a big issue in there is about food. There’s not enough food. And the rate of violence has increased in the women’s prison – which is unheard of. I’ve never heard about it in my lifetime, the amount of violence that is going on.

The women who come out and the women that we see predominantly say it’s about the lack of food and the lack of services and the amount of time that they’re locked down. Because they’re locked down a lot longer than they’re supposed to be.

You’re a lawyer and a firm critic of the criminal justice system. What are your main gripes with the way the system is currently operating?

Well the issue that I have is about the mass criminalisation and over criminalisation of the disadvantaged, the marginalised, and Aboriginal women.

It’s how the law is enforced. It targets the most disadvantaged in our community. That’s who we see pipelined into our prison system. The wealthy can afford lawyers, can fight in court and get a better outcome, than someone who is poor and Black.

And that’s why we see the numbers that we see and they’re the people that are targeted by law enforcement. They’re who gets criminalised and who gets imprisoned.

You advocate for the abolition of prisons. Many in the community would find this position hard to grasp. How do you propose that prisons could be abolished? And what are the alternatives to this system of incarceration?

Well, there’s lots of alternatives. It’s a way that you view the world, if you like. So previously, how people viewed slavery and called for the abolition of slavery. Because it’s about who gets enslaved. And prison is an extension of that slavery.

Carceral structures are used across all areas, and even more so, in schools for example now. Where police are going to be in primary schools. And principals have power to bring penalties down on children, or get them charged with criminal offences.

We live in a carceral world that we need to unpack and we need to start looking outside the bars, and how we can support people in our community.

We live in a very resource rich country. And there’s no reason why anyone should be living in poverty at all. But poverty is a massive driver as to who is criminalised and who is imprisoned. So we need to look at all those issues.

We’ve seen that over the years of successive governments that eviscerate social services. So the more the social services are eviscerated the more people we will see that are poor or Aboriginal will be pipelined into the prison system, because it has become the default response for social issues.

That is imprisonment, whether it’s for homelessness, mental health, poverty – this is where everyone is being funnelled in, because prison can’t turn them away. So that’s why we’re abolitionists, because we do not believe that it should be a dumping ground for the most marginalised people in our community.

Prisons are very violent institutions and they don’t serve their purpose. They are a fundamental failure. If they were not a failure we would see no one in prison now, but we don’t.

They’re driven by mass corporations. They are driven by the corporations to make money, particularly in the private sector. So we need to look at that. It’s about capitalism and how you unpack it.

Alternatives can be where we stop building prisons and put a moratorium on them. No more prisons to be built.

And then what we need to do as a community is use our resources to ensure that no one is living in poverty. That children get educated. That they have access to health services and that they have access to affordable accommodation.

But we’re not seeing that. We’re seeing the divide between the rich and the poor get greater every day.

When you were convicted of drug trafficking you were selling cannabis. Last year, the federal government passed legislation that will for allowing for the legal cultivation, manufacture and distribution of medical marijuana. And in the US recreational use is now legal in eight states.

What do you think about the current laws in Australia regarding cannabis?

There’s obviously two sides of the coin, in regards to cannabis. One, that it can be used for medical purposes, like you said, and another, professionals would say, that it’s a highly addictive drug and can trigger schizophrenia and things like that.

Anything that you say people can’t do, people will do. And obviously cannabis is one of those.

I don’t have an issue with cannabis being legalised at all. Because we see so many people in prison for possession of that type of drug.

But that’s in the hands of the people that are elected. We need to be careful about who we elect into parliament, because we don’t necessarily see what we want coming out in the laws.

And lastly, going into 2017, what are the key issues Sisters Inside will be focusing on this year?

We will still be working from our position of decarceration to work towards abolition.

We’re presently setting up an office in north Queensland. The women up there – who are predominately Aboriginal women in that prison in Townsville – have had really no support, no programs for years and years.

We’ll be able to provide services and support to reduce the numbers of them, not only going into prison, but getting them out through our Supreme Court Bail Program. And also on release, to get them out and keep them out. And reconnect them with their children and families.

Debbie thanks very much for taking the time out to chat with us today. And best of luck with your future work advocating for the rights of women in the criminal justice system.

No worries. Thank you.

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Paul Gregoire

Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He's the winner of the 2021 NSW Council for Civil Liberties Award For Excellence In Civil Liberties Journalism. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Paul wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.

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