explainer

‘85 per cent are victims of abuse.’ Why the prison system is stacked against women.

This post deals with sexual assault and domestic violence and may be triggering for some readers. 

"I will never un-see what I saw in there. I will never view the world the same."

Those are the words of Annabel Walker, who spoke to Mamamia's No Filter podcast about the reality of life behind bars in Australian prison. 

The 32-year-old spent eight months in prison after being found guilty of a string of fraud and deception convictions in September last year. 

"The thing that surprised me the most is the grief in there. You can't have put pen to paper about what you've seen and heard in there about people's lives. Like people's parents that shot them up with heroin at 10 years old, been molested, you name it, it has happened," she shared. 

"And these women know nothing better. Or they're in there with their mum or their grandma. You know there are generations in prison." 

"You see so much loss in there."

Annabel was one of the eight per cent of women that make up the total prison population here in Australia. 

While that might not seem a large percentage, more women and girls are finding themselves locked up in prison than ever before. 

Between 2009 and 2019, the rate at which women and girls were imprisoned increased by 64 percent. For men it was just 45 percent. 

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders currently make up 33 percent of the female prison population. 

So why are more women and girls going to jail now? Well, research has found that many female prisoners are victims of violence and abuse at the hands of their partners.

In fact, in 2016, a conference held by the National Judicial College of Australia and the ANU College of Law heard that the majority of women in Australia and around the world, have committed minor non-violent offences. Of the women who have committed serious violent crimes, they are almost always against violent partners rather than strangers. 

A history of trauma.

According to Silke Meyer, Associate Professor in Criminology and the Deputy Director of the Gender and Family Violence Prevention Centre at Monash University, a lot of crimes against violent partners can be linked to a history of trauma. 

"When we look at the female prison population, there's a much greater level of violence against women or violence against girls that often starts in childhood, and is primarily male perpetrated violence," she tells The Quicky, Mamamia's daily news podcast. 

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"That leads to a trajectory that creates increased risk for offending. Other types of risk factors like dropping out of education and having no employment opportunities, again, often intersect with adult experiences of violence."

Listen to Silke Meyer's full interview on The Quicky, Mamamia's daily news podcast. Post continues below. 

Drug-related offences.

Meyer also says drug-related offences have been a key driver for female incarceration in the last couple of decades, at least.  

"We very often see that substance misuse that either starts in the teenage years, whether it's childhood abuse, or later in life, where there's intimate partner violence. Whether that starts with prescription medication or alcohol... as a coping mechanism when there's trauma... in the context of intimate partner violence and coercive control."

"The other thing when we look at the impact of violence against women more broadly, is that it is often associated with poor mental health outcomes, lower employability, housing instabilities, homelessness. We know that incarcerated women are disproportionately experiencing homelessness and rough sleeping prior to entering prison. So these are all things that intersect with their experiences of victimisation, but they also create an increasing risk for criminal activity."

The misidentification of women as aggressors rather than victims. 

Women also tend to be be 'misidentified' as the primary aggressors rather than victims of violence. 

"When police get called out, she might be upset and appear to be hysterical. He presents really well, and the police is unsure and either put an order on both people or put an order on her only. 

"And because we've called for tougher policies and legislations on dealing with domestic violence offenders, the flip side is that punished women get misidentified. Or in the context where you have women that actually use violence, either because children are at risk, or in retaliation, or in anticipation of more violence being directed at them." 

As such, Meyer says we end up criminalising "women for their underlying victimisation". 

"I think that's been highly problematic, and which is why we've seen an increasing number of women being incarcerated for domestic violence offences."

In fact, repeated studies have found that at least 85 per cent of women prisoners in Australia are victims of abuse, with most having experienced multiple forms and incidents of violence.

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However, some believe this figure could actually be higher, with the Sisters Inside survey finding that 98 per cent of women prisoners in Queensland reported being a past victim of violence.

The pandemic also hasn't helped. 

Last year, 56 women were killed by violence in Australia, despite the federal government announcing $150 million in additional domestic violence funding. 

Chief Executive of Women's Safety in New South Wales, Haley Foster, said 2020 will be remembered as the worst year for domestic violence that those working in the sector have ever experienced. 

The solution.

Meyer says change needs to start at a community level to prevent women from ending up in these dangerous and risky positions. 

"There needs to be a whole different approach to how we give opportunities for community-led and self-determined ways of prevention. In particular, [more attention is required] on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander girls' experiences and life trajectories."

"It's a combination of primary preventions. And I think we see way too little of that because it means a long-term commitment, and most of our interventions are government-cycle focused. People commit to whats in the foreseeable future and the foreseeable financial investment rather than saying, 'okay, it's gonna be a long haul. It's going to be two generations'."

Changes also need to be made once someone has offended. 

"Once it comes to offending, there needs to be more therapeutic interventions that are person-centred that look at what the underlying drivers of the offending behaviour are. We need to be asking 'what if we intervened with support?', particularly around mental health and substance misuse."

"Could we interrupt offending trajectories by doing something that is community based, as opposed to saying, 'we need to punish'?" 

If this post brings up any issues for you, or if you just feel like you need to speak to someone, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service. It doesn’t matter where you live, they will take your call and, if need be, refer you to a service closer to home. 

You can also call safe steps 24/7 Family Violence Response Line on 1800 015 188 or visit www.safesteps.org.au for further information.

Feature Image: Getty.