Overcrowding in Women’s Prisons – Working Towards a Solution

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Woman prisoner at fence

Melaleuca Remand and Reintegration Facility is a new maximum security prison for women in Canning Vale, Western Australia. Opened in December last year, the prison is located beside the Hakea prison for men and has the capacity to hold 254 inmates.

The facility is run by Sodexo, an international corporation with no experience of managing Australian prisons. And its first report card – a survey of prison staff – is far from perfect.

Eighty percent of staff said they felt unsafe at work, while a third reported they were suffering from stress and anxiety. Nightshift staffing levels were found to be inadequate, as far as 90 percent of them were concerned.

If this is the way staff are feeling, it can only be inferred that the women who are being detained at the centre are also feeling it.

Cash bonuses for prisoner rehabilitation

In an Australian first, Sodexo are being offered a bonus by the state government for reducing reoffending rates. For each inmate who stays out of gaol for more than two years after release, the company receives $15,000.

The current recidivism rate for female inmates in WA is 34 percent. The Barnett government wants the prison to reduce this to 27 percent.

While lowering reoffending rates is a positive for everyone concerned, handing over the responsibility for rehabilitation to private companies with cash incentives may be counter-intuitive from their perspective.

If Sodexo is successful in reducing recidivism, they’ll have less women in their prison down the track, which will affect their bottom line.

Women in prison on the rise

According to figures from the Women in NSW Safety and Justice report released last December, if Sodexo was operating here, they’d be in luck. Since 2012, the number of women in NSW prisons is increasing by an average of 7.2 percent annually.

Pru Goward, then NSW minister for women, suggested that the reason for the rise was that women are becoming increasingly violent.

However, Lana Sandas, chief executive of the Women’s Justice Network, formerly known as WIPAN, disagrees.

“Despite the number of women in prison rising at an unprecedented rate, there has been no correlation of an increase in crime,” Ms Sandas told Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, “let alone offences of a violent nature.”

A unique era for women prisoners

The actual situation, as Ms Sandas explains it, is that “women are being imprisoned now for much less than they were in the past.” It’s not that different crimes are being committed, but it’s a “difference in the judicial system’s response.”

There’s two reasons for the increase. Firstly, “the NSW government has adopted the ‘tough approach,’” Ms Sandas outlined, adding that both bail and parole laws have “significantly been tightened up.”

The second reason, according to Ms Dandas, is that moves towards gender equality come with more consistency in sentencing between the genders.

The women prisoners’ rights advocate says that she has no issue with this. However, she says there is proof that prison has a greater impact on women than men – and children are suffering due to the loss of their incarcerated mothers.

Bias in the ACT correctional system

This month, Canberra Liberals’ spokesperson for women Giulia Jones has spoken out about the overcrowding in women’s correctional facilities in the ACT.

Given the rising rate of female incarceration, she questioned why the women’s accommodation facilities at the Alexander Maconochie Centre were not expanded, when the men’s facilities were.

But it wasn’t just accommodation that came under the scrutiny of Ms Jones, it was also the lack of work opportunities. New bakery and laundromat work was introduced at the beginning of last year. However, the rehabilitation program is only available for male inmates.

A nationwide problem

This is an issue that can be found right across the board in Australia. Women account for only 8 percent of the total Australian prison population. As of June 30 last year, there were 2,876 women inmates countrywide, which was an 11 percent increase on the year before.

However, at that same time, there were 33,256 male prisoners. So unfortunately, due to their numbers, women prisoners often get left out of the equation when government is planning and budgeting for programs and services.

This is despite, women being more likely to reoffend than men, Ms Sandas points out. “Less money and attention is being spent on resolving this issue,” she said. “A discriminatory system has evolved denying this group a second chance, purely because they’re in the minority.”

A lack of alternatives to incarceration

Overcrowding is endemic in correctional facilities across the country. And as Ms Sandas has identified in the past, a major reason for this is there aren’t many sentencing options outside of sending people to prison.

Magistrates and judges are calling out for alternatives, but they’re not forthcoming. And in Lana’s point of view, the only alternative at present are rehabilitation centres, with a limited amount of beds, which are mostly reserved for men.

Ms Sandas stresses that she’s talking about alternatives from day one, not after a stint in a remand centre. “We know that when a woman sleeps in a prison, even just for a few nights, there’s a 50 percent chance she will return there within two years.”

Bail support programs: reform before sentencing

Lana suggests that an ideal alternative to sending women to remand centres are bail support programs. A peak body could be set up and funded to monitor and support women who are on bail. These women would be given “holistic and wrap-around support.”

Women undertaking such programs would be helped along by a multifaceted network “that simply can’t be achieved in prison, especially on remand.” The organisation would address “pre-charge behaviours” to rehabilitate women before their trial and sentencing dates.

Ms Sandas said this is something the Women’s Justice Network has achieved many times over.

“Each time we meet a woman at the point of arrest and immediately shower her with holistic support and guidance,” she concluded, “she’s a very different woman by the time she goes back to court for sentencing.”

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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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