The recent release of a report conducted by the Australian Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (BOCSAR) has uncovered the extent of the over-incarceration of Australia’s Indigenous Women. The report detailed how the past six years have seen a 50% surge in female Indigenous prisoners in some state prisons. When this growth statistic is decomposed, it can be seen that 40% of the increase is made up of non-Indigenous inmates while 74% is from Indigenous inmates. Indigenous females are particularly overrepresented as Indigenous women are jailed at 21.2 times the rate of non-Indigenous women compared to Indigenous men being jailed at 14.7 times the rate of non-Indigenous men. Condemned by the double bind of disadvantage faced by women and Indigenous persons in incarceration, this growing demographic is increasingly becoming the victim of systemic bias in the judicial system.
Acting Director of Legal Advocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre, Adrianne Walters, states, “what we’re doing is essentially condemning future generations to cycles of entrenched disadvantage and suffering.” Walters went on to characterize the insidiousness of the cycle: “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.” Former prisoner and advocate, Vickie Roach said, “They punish our women, their families and communities, for actions that are often the consequence of forced child removal and assimilation policies.”
In predominantly Indigenous communities, there is often widespread distrust of police. A study conducted by Koya Aboriginal Corporation, found that 33% of respondents between 11 and 17 wouldn’t contact the police, even in the case of an emergency. When responding to calls, police in Indigenous communities tend to prioritise a punitive response to women. While female Indigenous inmates are often charged with assault, many of these offences are thought to be related to domestic violence. Despite the fact that 70-90% of incarcerated Aboriginal women are thought to have been the victim of domestic violence, there is little consideration of the context of these women’s offences.
If the over-incarceration of Indigenous women continues, it stands to have significant intergenerational ramifications. Since 2008, annual government ‘Closing the Gap’ reports have been commissioned to assess the discrepancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous children along key metrics, such as educational attainment and life expectancy. The limited success of these reports can be attributed to the way in which they have attempted to address ‘the gap’ amongst the juvenile population in isolation from the increasing number of Indigenous women in prison. At the moment, it is estimated that 80% of incarcerated Indigenous women are also mothers. A Landmark study, ‘Always was, always will be Koori children’, which found that 88% of Indigenous children had been exposed to domestic violence. Where the incarceration of women removes childrens’ primary caregiver, it acts to reduce the prospect of a stable home life, and disenfranchises them from police.
To remedy the overrepresentation of Indigenous women in prison, greater financial support needs to be given to providing newly released women with secure housing options and access to job resettlement programs. In addition, the pre-sentencing process needs greater inclusion of generational context of alleged offences. The success of the de-carceration efforts ultimately depends on the empowerment of Indigenous, community-run initiatives rather than a new wave of abrasive and inefficient government policies.