The number of Aboriginal women behind bars has increased a staggering 250 percent and the Aboriginal Legal Service says the Prime Minister needs to act urgently to implement national prison reforms.
In a bombshell report released on Monday, the Human Rights Law Centre said Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women make up about 34 percent of Australia’s female prison population, despite accounting for only two percent of the nation’s adult female population.
An estimated 80 percent of Indigenous women prisoners are mothers.
ALS NSW chairman Bunja Smith said the statistics are a “national disgrace”.
“This is a crisis being ignored by all levels of government,” Mr Smith said.
“The shocking numbers of Aboriginal women in prison now proves current justice systems across the states and territories are failing vulnerable Aboriginal women and their families.”
Mr Smith said a new approach was needed and Australia should look to places such as Scandinavia where the emphasis was on restorative justice rather than punishment.
He said in Norway the incarceration rate was just 75 people per 100,000 and the country had the lowest recidivism rates in the world at 20 percent.
“We believe the trial of an Indigenous Correctional Facility, based on this successful Norwegian Model, would be greatly beneficial in starting to address the disproportionate number of Aboriginal women in Australian prisons,” Mr Smith said.
“The ALS is urging the Prime Minister to step in and take action and convene a national reform agenda for Australia’s broken justice systems, otherwise more and more Aboriginal women and their children will end up languishing in jail.”
Vickie Roach, a former prisoner who now holds a Masters degree and is a writer and activist, said the current system damaged women and entire communities.
A member of the Stolen Generation, she said she spent many years in and out of the courts, children’s homes and jails.
“I was taken when I was two years old,” she said. “Child welfare and the police held me responsible for things that kids at home with their families never would have been. I never learned ‘normal’ relationships.
“I was on my own by the age of 13. I ended up squatting and got addicted to heroin.”
Ms Roach said prevention should be prioritised over punishment.
“Governments need to get rid of laws that are criminalising so many of our women,” she said. “When women go to jail, kids are often left behind and go into the child protection system. We have no trust in that system.
“‘Tough on crime’ does not work. We need more prevention and diversion.
“Governments should be looking for ways to close prisons. Governments, courts and police need to work with and learn from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
“We know the solutions – investment in housing, education and health. That’s what makes a difference and helps communities stay strong and healthy.”
The Human Rights Law Centre and Change the Record report, Over-represented and Overlooked: the Crisis of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Women’s Over-imprisonment, made 18 recommendations for change.
These included increasing funding for Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander community-led prevention and early-intervention efforts to reduce violence against women and offending by women.
State and territory laws should also be reviewed to decriminalise minor offences that could be dealt with in other ways and to find other responses to low-level offending and public drunkenness, the report said.
Human Rights Law Centre Legal Advocacy Director Adrianne Walters said the WA case of Julieka Dhu, who was locked up for not paying fines in 2014 and died in custody, was a tragic example of a failing system.
“At a time when she most needed help, the justice system punished her,” Ms Walters said.
Victorian Legal Service deputy CEO Annette Vickery said even a short time in custody could damage women and their families.
“Governments should be doing everything they can to help women avoid prison to prevent the devastating rippling effects of women’s imprisonment on children and families,” she said.
The 250 percent increase in the number of Aboriginal women prisoners was measured since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, which ended in 1991.
By Wendy Caccetta