The number of women in prisons is continuing to soar, new data shows. But advocates warn we can’t arrest the increase until we start properly addressing domestic abuse, which affects an overwhelming majority of women behind bars.
Every year, more and more women are being crammed into Australian jails, yet we rarely question why.
As we lap up fictional versions of female incarceration on our television — the glamorous inmates in cult hit Orange is the New Black or grittier local versions in the award-winning Wentworth — an unprecedented number of women are steadily flowing into the blunt brick prisons dotting our suburbs.
And an overwhelming majority of them have one underlying experience in common.
Consider this: Over the past decade, the total number of people behind bars in Australia has skyrocketed, rising by almost 40 per cent since 2013, and 56 per cent since 2008, according to ABS data released earlier this month.
But while men continue to make up the majority of the prison population (92 per cent), the number of women being incarcerated is increasing at a significantly higher rate: a staggering 85 per cent over the past 10 years. Indigenous women account for much of that growth.
The latest national snapshot of prisoners in Australia shows that as of June 2018, there were 3,625 women in custody, up 10 per cent in just one year. A third of female prisoners — 34 per cent — were Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, despite Indigenous women comprising just two per cent of the broader female population.
More than a third — 37 per cent — of all female prisoners were on remand, or un-sentenced, and almost half (47 per cent) had been incarcerated previously, rising to 64 per cent for Indigenous women.
Behind these figures, though, is one often-overlooked fact: an overwhelming majority of women in prison are victims of domestic violence, with evidence suggesting between 70 per cent and 90 per cent of incarcerated women have been physically, sexually or emotionally abused as children or adults — an experience experts say frequently leads to their offending and criminalisation.
And once in the system, they are likely to return.
The costs of incarceration
“It’s confronting to think about, but we have to ask ourselves whether we’d need prisons for women at all were it not for family and domestic violence,” said Elena Campbell, associate director of research, advocacy and policy at RMIT’s Centre for Innovative Justice.
“Family violence is the experience that probably contributes most directly to women’s trajectory towards offending, so if we made an effort to respond more effectively to men’s violence against women and children … perhaps we wouldn’t need to spend more and more money on incarcerating those women.”
It is crucial to note that the stats are even bleaker for Aboriginal women, who are 35 times more likely than non-Indigenous women to be hospitalised for family violence-related assaults and are incarcerated at 21 times the rate of non-Indigenous women.
Experts say there are a number of historical contributing factors. “The effects of colonisation, attempting to annihilate our culture and connection to land, the acts of genocide and the forced removal of our kids have all contributed to putting more [Aboriginal] women behind bars,” said Antoinette Braybrook, chief executive of Djirra, an organisation supporting Aboriginal women experiencing family violence in Victoria.
“When you create environments where people are less equal or more marginalised then you create a situation like we see today — high levels of violence experienced by Aboriginal women, high numbers of children removed from their mothers, increasing numbers of our kids in youth justice and our women being the fastest growing prison population in the country.”
So what is going on? Why is the number of women in prison increasing so rapidly — surely it cannot be that we have become innately more inclined to crime? Why are so many of them victims of abuse, and how might their trauma have paved the path to incarceration?
Why has this problem continued to fly under the radar — and why are so many survivors still reluctant to speak out — despite numerous reports and calls for urgent action over the past few decades? The coast of inaction is soaring.
In an ongoing ABC News investigation, we will be examining in depth the major factors leading to women’s imprisonment — particularly why so many have experienced sexual and domestic violence — why policymakers have, according to advocates, largely ignored the crisis, and what can be done to arrest the increase.
Family violence: a pathway to offending
There are several major and insidious reasons why women who have survived domestic abuse end up in jail. The first is homelessness. “Family violence is the biggest contributor to women’s homelessness but homelessness in turn is a huge driver of women’s offending,” said Elena Campbell.
Family and domestic violence support services:
“Family violence can also be the factor that sets people on a path towards a range of other behaviours and issues that can contribute to offending: for example, alcohol or other drug abuse — often a way of self-medicating or coping with trauma — mental illness, even gambling, which can be sought as respite from abuse.”
Homelessness, for instance, was recently cited by lawyers and prison support workers as the key reason why an alarming number of women who used to live at the Gatwick Private Hotel in Melbourne have wound up in jail following the sale of the former rooming house to Channel Nine for its home renovation show, The Block.
Numerous studies have detailed the links between poverty, homelessness and incarceration, with national research in 2012 finding more than half of women in prison had been sleeping rough or living in short-term accommodation in the month prior to being incarcerated.
Those exiting prison are also at greater risk of homelessness, with one study of women leaving prison in Victoria finding those who were homeless on release were more than twice as likely to have returned during a two-year period.
“Many of the women we see in prison in Victoria are there for offences that relate to poverty and homelessness … Many are there for drug-related crimes,” said Antoinette Braybrook.
“[The] women we work with are dealing with a lot of trauma — from family violence, having their children taken away, often inter-generational trauma. So they resort to self-medicating to take away the pain and feel numb or free, just for a moment.”
A second, more direct way women’s experience of domestic abuse can contribute to their criminalisation is when, as Ms Braybrook said, “she is forced by a violent partner to take the blame for his crime, or where she finally cracks after facing years of violence and fights back.”
In several Australian cases, women convicted of killing their current or former partners have told police and courts they acted in self-defence, often after having endured sometimes decades of abuse.
In a recent study of incarcerated Aboriginal mothers in Western Australia, many participants linked their experience of victimisation to their own retaliatory violence.
One inmate, “Louise”, who said she was charged and imprisoned for stabbing and injuring her former partner, described being attacked by him after she got out of the shower one evening: “He stalks me and rapes me and I’ve had to do the time,” she said.
When prison is a ‘safer’ place
Yet for many women behind bars, a prison cell can often feel like a safer place to be than in the community, with some interviewees in a recent ANROWS study reporting that going to jail was a way to escape domestic violence.
“For some women, [going to prison] will be the first time they’ve had the chance just to breathe, and feel safer, said Charlotte Jones, general manager of the Mental Health Legal Centre, which runs a program providing civil legal services and support to women with cognitive impairment and mental health issues in the Dame Phyllis Frost Centre, Melbourne’s maximum security women’s prison.
“Many of them don’t know what ‘feeling safe’ is … and they suddenly start to understand [prison] is a safe place. Nobody is going to hurt them there … they start to get their heads straight, they can think.
A third link is that survivors of abuse are at greater risk of substance abuse and mental health issues, which in turn makes then more vulnerable to offending and incarceration.
The Mental Health Legal Centre’s case load has doubled over the past two years, Ms Jones said, with Inside Access lawyers and social workers assisting about 80 women in prison per quarter.
Many clients were using ice prior to being incarcerated, she added — often their drug use has led to their offending; often it’s related to their experience of family violence.
“Substance abuse lies at the core of many of our clients’ issues. These are often people from complex families with complex intergenerational problems of drug and alcohol abuse combined with family violence and sexual abuse.”
Of the program’s 185 current clients, Ms Jones said, roughly 40 women in Dame Phyllis have sought assistance for family violence, with most seeking intervention orders against current and former partners to protect them whilst they’re inside and after they’re released.
‘Abusive men are manipulating the system’
Not that intervention orders are always protective, as a fourth risk factor shows.
One emerging but “alarming” phenomenon leading to women’s criminalisation, lawyers and advocates say, is the growing number of domestic violence victims being misidentified by police as primary aggressors — and named as respondents on family violence intervention orders.
The trend is yet to be fully explored in academic research but a small study by the Women’s Legal Service Victoria earlier this year found police were consistently misidentifying female victims of family violence as primary aggressors.
An analysis of client case files between January and May 2018 revealed that of the 55 female clients named by police as respondents to intervention orders, 32 had been incorrectly identified. In some cases, police had made intervention orders against women despite failing to question them.
(Victoria Police chief commissioner Graham Ashton acknowledged the problem in August, saying the force had been attempting to address it with training.)
The trend is also being observed in Queensland and New South Wales, with the chief executive of Sisters Inside Debbie Kilroy advising the Australian Law Reform Commission last year that her organisation was seeing, “rising rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women charged with breaches of domestic violence protection orders, often in circumstances where the police (rather than the intimate partner) have applied to impose the order”.
The criminalisation of Indigenous women for domestic abuse, Ms Kilroy said, “is unacceptable and totally inconsistent with the evidence that women and children are disproportionately survivors of violence”.
According to Elena Campbell, misapplied intervention orders often prevent women from staying in their home and seeing their children, and may quickly lead to them breaching the order — even accidentally — and being charged by police.
Disturbingly, she said, a growing number of perpetrators are attempting to “game the system” and will, for instance, apply for intervention orders during family law proceedings out of spite or to gain an advantage.
“What we’re hearing … is the really sophisticated and creative ways in which abusive men are manipulating the [family violence] system … research we’ve conducted recently suggests that abusers are feeling like there is a system that’s persecuting them, that they will then use to persecute their victim.”
A dangerous cycle
And the spiral from experiencing abuse to offending can “happen incredibly quickly,” Ms Campbell said.
“Women experiencing family violence are vulnerable in a range of ways: they are less likely to have access to social and family supports as a result of stigma or the perpetrator isolating them, and their employment might be tenuous. But it only takes one precipitating factor” — homelessness, debt, complications with family law proceedings — “to tip the balance”.
And importantly, she added, “it can affect women who’ve experienced disadvantage for a long time and whose access to housing is insecure, as well as well-resourced women in seemingly stable jobs”.
Even a short stint in prison is enough to set off a dangerous cycle, with many women remaining in the correctional system for years, if not for good.
“Just one day in prison can destroy a woman’s life,” Ms Braybrook said. “She can lose her kids, her home, her job, her hope.”
The costs are borne by entire families: Imprisoning mothers can have devastating consequences for their children and perpetuate intergenerational offending and cycles of incarceration. This disproportionately impacts Indigenous women in prison, of whom some 80 per cent are mothers.
“If we are to prevent more and more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women ending up in prison and the havoc this wreaks on the lives of their children and communities,” the Human Rights Law Centre and the Change the Record Coalition said last year, “urgent action must be taken now”.
But just as family violence is contributing to women’s offending, their offending can also increase their risk of experiencing family violence.
“Once women have got even a minor [criminal] record — warrants for fines or low-level offending, including intervention order breaches — they’re going to be far more reluctant to report any family violence they’re experiencing to police, because if they call police or front up to a station, police may … see there are outstanding warrants and arrest them rather than dealing with the perpetrator,” Ms Campbell said.
“We hear frequently that women who sought police intervention to keep them safe were instead arrested, so of course that’s going to deter them from seeking help and makes them even more vulnerable [to abuse].”
Many mistrust police, are reluctant to report abuse
This can be a particular barrier for Aboriginal women, who are more likely than non-Indigenous women to be charged and arrested for public order offences and other minor crimes.
At the same time, however, survivors and advocates report police are consistently failing to respond appropriately to Indigenous women experiencing family violence.
Do you have a story?
Over the next few months Hayley Gleeson and Julia Baird will be investigating the increase in the number of women being incarcerated in Australia, and why a significant majority have experienced domestic violence. If you have a story to share, contact us at: ABCIPV@gmail.com.
“Many of our women mistrust police and fear they won’t be believed; many fear retaliation by their abuser if they go to the police, and — because of the history of this country — our women are often terrified that if they report family violence their children will be taken away,” Ms Braybrook said.
This issue has repeatedly been raised in research and other inquiries.
In March, the Pathways to Justice report highlighted the death in custody of Yamatji woman Ms Dhu as an example of how police respond less “empathetically” to Aboriginal victims of abuse.
The report, which summarised the findings of an extensive inquiry into the incarceration rate of Indigenous Australians, found Ms Dhu “died in police custody of complications from an infected rib fracture — an injury sustained in a family violence incident — after repeated failure by officers to provide access to adequate medical care”.
This failure, the report said, “was largely rooted in the false assumption by police officers that Ms Dhu” — who was arrested on a warrant of commitment for $3,622 of unpaid fines in August 2014 — “was withdrawing from substance addiction, rather than the victim of a family violence incident”.
The impacts of tighter bail laws
Another crucial factor driving up the female prison population is the structure and nature of the criminal justice system itself.
Recently toughened bail and sentencing laws around the country, for instance, have meant women — whose offending tends to be less serious and less violent than men’s — are increasingly being denied bail for minor charges.
“In recent years we have seen conservative governments using ‘tough on crime’ approaches like mandatory sentencing and punitive bail laws which the evidence shows fall hardest on already marginalised and vulnerable people — like Aboriginal women,” Ms Braybrook said.
This has resulted in more women receiving custodial sentences for minor offences “in ways we rarely used to see”, Ms Campbell said.
“Generally, women’s offending is pretty minor — it’s property or drug-related offences — but they are being remanded more frequently because the bail laws are so tough, which in turn disconnects them from their children as well as any housing they might have had, which then makes them more vulnerable when they’re released.”
And because of the backlog of cases and limited number of bail hearings, a significant number of women are being held on remand — nationally more than a third of female prisoners are un-sentenced — which usually disqualifies them from accessing therapeutic programs.
So then what can be done?
The impacts of family violence on Australia’s female prisoners — especially Indigenous women — have been acknowledged by a series of substantial reports and inquiries in the last few decades, including the Pathways to Justice report as well as the Royal Commission into Family Violence, which noted in its final report in 2016 that: “Women can be imprisoned as a result of the direct and indirect effects of family violence: some women might commit crimes as a result of a history of childhood violence or other trauma or under duress or coercion from a violent partner … Women in these situations need support while they are in prison, to help them overcome the effects of trauma and avoid re-offending.”
Among other reforms, the Commission recommended Corrections review its processes for identifying offenders with a history of family violence and respond through therapeutic interventions and education programs for all female prisoners.
Thinking outside the bars
But for some advocates, such piecemeal strategies are not enough to effectively tackle what they argue is a deep and complex problem laced with racism.
“This problem is only getting worse, it is not getting better,” said Antoinette Braybrook, who believes “a relatively modest investment by government into specialist community organisations that work with women could turn things around”.
Charlotte Jones agrees governments need to be investing more in drug rehabilitation and diversion programs, especially at the court level.
“It took generations to make this mess and it will take generations to undo,” she said. And while for some women prison can be a “circuit breaker” and an opportunity to sober up, she said, “Prison is not drug rehab and … does not address the fundamental issues of addiction.”
For Elena Campbell, policymakers must review and recognise the impacts — particularly on women — of tighter bail and sentencing regimes. “The evidence shows a punitive approach and a knee-jerk response to these kinds of issues is not effective. It’s expensive … but it doesn’t bring any benefits and generally causes more harm,” she said.
“Yes, one of the purposes of the Sentencing Act, amongst other things, is to rehabilitate offenders, but again, very few people [in custody] are successfully being linked with appropriate services — particularly women who are serving short sentences.”
The consistent message from experts in this field is clear: as our jails continue to crowd with women, with survivors of abuse, mothers, homeless and Indigenous women, we need to urgently rethink our approach to incarceration and the factors leading to it.
Over the next few months, ABC News will explore the links between women’s imprisonment and domestic violence in a range of diverse communities across Australia, in order to better understand the experiences of women hooked in to a system that is difficult to escape. We will unpack the rising rates of incarceration of survivors of abuse, why experts say it is getting worse, and what the possible solutions might be.
“We are so prepared as a community to empathise with victims of the kind of horrific child sexual abuse we learned about through the Royal Commission,” said Tania Wolff, principal lawyer at Melbourne’s First Step Legal, which assists clients struggling with complex mental illness and addiction, most of whom she says have suffered abuse and neglect.
“And yet we seem unable to extend the same understanding to adult survivors who exhibit dysfunctional and anti-social behaviour as a result.
“The question for me,” she said, “is, how can we treat those broken people in a more compassionate, humane way?”