Women in Prison

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Prison is not an isolated institution, it is part of a continuum in the control of women, whether by our lack of access to economic independence, violence, racism or specific laws that target women such as prostitution and social security. The society that condemns the behaviour of women it imprisons, yet accepts the treatment prisoners are given inside is at best hypocritical, but perhaps more correctly, sadistic (Amanda George, 1993). 

The prison system takes people from their families and communities, crams them into an overcrowded and oppressive environment, subjects them to isolation, violence, torture, guard brutality, organized white supremacy, and a life of boredom and useless toil, then releases them with little to no support to face poverty, post-trauma stress, and ongoing persecution from the law.

The experience is destructive for both men and women prisoners. But the specific issues behind women’s incarceration have been largely neglected, in part because they represent just 6% of the overall prison population in NSW. Women have traditionally been sent to prison for different reasons; and once in prison, they endure different conditions of incarceration. Women’s ‘crimes’ have often had a sexual definition and been rooted in the patriarchal double standard. Furthermore, the nature of women’s imprisonment reflects the position of women in society.

Key Issues

Historical Context
Indigenous Women in PrisonDrug Use
Education and Training
Mental Health
Aftercare: Rehabilitation and the Transition to Liberty
Non-English Background Women Minorities
Prisoners – Beyond Bars
The Bangkok Rules


Emu Plains All-Day Visits
Stop the Womens Gaol – Dillwynia


Tracy Brannigan
Roseanne Catt


Submission to the Inquiry into the Discrimination Experience by Women

Historical Context of Women’s Imprisonment in the West
Although prisons as a system did not emerge until industrialisation, the institutional control and punishment of women deemed to have deviated from their assigned roles is centuries older. In the late Middle Ages women were burned at the stake for adultery or murdering a spouse, when men would most often not be punished at all for the same acts. Unwanted wives, illegitimate daughters, political prisoners, the mentally ill and the handicapped were forced into convents, monasteries, and later, asylums. A million people, over 80% of them women, were executed under the witch-hunts of Europe and the US, many of them poor women, single women, lesbians, feminists and midwives. These systems of punishment and institutionalisation were about preventing women from becoming economically and sexually independent and maintaining the patriarchal social structure. The role of women was an essential element in the ‘civilising’ project for colonial administrations.

In Australia the first prison for women was opened in Long Bay, NSW, in 1909.

Women’s Imprisonment Today
Nationally and internationally, the number of women being imprisoned is rising dramatically. With an increase of more than 260% over the past two decades, there are now around 516 women in full-time custody in NSW, about a third of those on remand (unsentenced and awaiting trial). Not only are more women going to jail, but at expanding rates, for longer periods, and for ever more minor crimes. For Aboriginal women the trend has been even more disturbing. With 109 women in full-time custody in June last year, they are the fastest growing group in jail.

Policy makers often attempt to put the increase in women prisoners down to increased police ‘efficiency’ and an alleged greater involvement of women in serious crime. Both these assertions are unbased. The profile of women in prison demonstrates that the issues go much deeper: Out of all women in jail in NSW: – at least 85% are survivors of sexual abuse – 70% experienced physical violence as an adult – 70-90% are drug addicts – 73% have been admitted to psychiatric or mental health units – 39% have attempted suicide – 31% are Indigenous – half are mothers of dependent young children – 30% in metropolitan prisons come from the three most disadvantaged Sydney suburbs. and – 20% have been in the care system as children compared to 2% of the general population. – at least 50% report being victims of childhood abuse or domestic violence. Prison is often a very expensive way of making bad situations worse.– Nearly 40% of women prisoners lose their homes as a result of imprisonment.- 65% re-offend on release.- The most common offences for which women are sent to prison are theft and handling stolen goods. Source: Women in Prison
When we look at the life stories of women within the prison system, the distinctions between offender and victim become very blurred. Their crimes are primarily those of poverty and drug addiction. Nationally 71.6% of women are imprisoned for non-violent property-related offences, as the Ombudsman found in 1997.

The 1997 NSW Standing Committee into Social Issues recognised the relationship between drug dependency and physical and sexual abuse as a crucial issue in women’s imprisonment internationally. Yet Government priorities continue to focus on building prisons rather than support services for these women. Prisons represent up to $60 000 per prisoner per year which is not spent on refuges, housing, education, legal aid, drug rehabilitation, employment, mental illness, sexual assault and all the other services which have been suffering desperately under funding cuts and economic rationalisation in recent years. In fact it’s the lack of these very same services which lead to the conditions where women get jailed.

Male privilege and the protection of that privilege, in a framework of white supremacy and capitalism, continue to be central to the criminal prosecution system.

Perhaps most illustrative of the unequal justice that applies to women are the countless cases of battered women in prison, convicted and sentenced for fighting back, and sometimes killing, their abusive partners in defense of their lives and/or the lives of their children.

The legal system’s zeal for attempting to separate individual from environment can be particularly unjust in the case of women. One of the problems is the way in which our system of laws has been built up around the idea of a “rational”, financially and socially independent (and white and heterosexual) male subject. When the offender is instead a battered woman, a mother with dependent children, a woman who goes into debt to help another, a person with a drug addiction, a person who faces structural racism or suffers trauma, the legal models cannot cope. Blame is awarded and support does not enter the equation.

‘Women who come before the courts encounter not only the rejection of their allegedly illegal activity, but also a strong rejection of what is all too often perceived as their “anti-feminine” behaviour’ (Hampton 1993).

The 1997 NSW Standing Committee into Social Issues found that a woman who fits into traditional gender roles and family stereotypes is less likely to receive a custodial sentence than the woman who is perceived as not being motherly or domestic. A drug addicted, single mother who is a sex worker is far more likely to receive a custodial sentence for a minor property crime than is a middle class, married mother who commits company fraud. She is also likely to be treated more harshly than a male counterpart for the same property crime.
On the inside women are also treated according to ideological assumptions about ‘correct’ female behaviour. Some jurisdictions have attempted to address women’s different ‘needs’ in prison by offering floral dresses as an alternative to the tracksuit. Interestingly basic health, nutrition and humane treatment do not equally rate as feminine ‘needs’. Lesbian behaviour is also policed to varying degrees.

The Punishment of Mothers and Children
There are 4,000 children with a parent in a NSW prison (Easteal 1991). Approximately 60% of women in prisons are parents, many being sole carers of young children before their incarceration.

How can we reconcile ourselves to the knowledge that a child can be pulled out of bed at midnight by uniformed officers and placed into foster care with strangers because there is a ‘suspicion’ that her mother – a prisoner – has taken drugs? What impact is it having on these kids, who so often think it is their fault that their mothers have been taken away; their punishment? (J Griffin, ‘Call my name’, Program to Somebody’s Daughter Theatre Company production, 1994).

Women’s entry into the criminal legal system often reflects a culmination of the many disadvantages that women deal with on a daily basis. Largely because of women’s unpaid labour in the domestic sphere in child-rearing, we are much more likely to face economic hardship, especially as single mothers. This is often the beginning of a spiraling into the prison cycle. But entering the prison system as a mother is especially damaging for both the woman and her children.

Children of prisoners face a high chance of ending up in foster care and experiencing isolation, disruption, dislocation, poverty and even physical and sexual abuse. Many later end up in detention themselves. A woman who has had her children removed may never regain custody over them, let alone rebuild the relationship or overcome her own guilt. Additionally, women are far more likely than men to be released from prison to a broken family and no home and little or no personal or financial support.

In line with the gendered notion of the criminal body, there are few protocols for police when arresting an individual who has dependent children. In a number of jurisdictions there are in fact more instructions for arresting an offender with a pet! As there are fewer prison facilities for women, an incarcerated woman is ordinarily much farther away from her home and family than the average male prisoner. This increased distance causes substantial transportation problems for children of prisoners and as a result deprives women prisoners of contact with their children.

Prison officers know that inmates’ children are often their biggest anxiety, and contact visits are often used as disciplinary tools in petty power games over inmates. Although prison authorities admit that family contact is the one factor which most greatly enhances parole success, the jail system actively works to obstruct such contact. Many prisoners have commented that it was their guilt in losing their children that cemented their drug addictions.

The NSW Government constantly boasts about its Mothers and Children program in NSW prisons. But despite the hundreds of mothers to have passed through its jails, only twenty-one women had access to the full-time program between 1996 and 2000. A woman lucky enough to qualify faces an un-enviable ‘choice’ – to keep her child in a prison environment of fear, brutality and tear gassings, or to face the pain of separation for them both.

It seems not only are innocent children to be punished, but women with dependent children are to be punished twice: both for their illegal act and for being a ‘bad’ mother.

Strip Search
Incarceration removes all sense of power and control that people have over their bodies, over their daily routines and their life opportunities in the future. For the huge majority of women in prison who are survivors of sexual abuse and domestic violence, this is especially destructive.

Couple this with the daily reality for people in prison and police custody to be legally sexually assaulted through the ritual of stripsearches. For every contact visit a woman must go into a room with a number of officers, take off her clothes, hand them to the officers – not necessarily female although officially required to be – stand naked, raise her arms, lift her breasts, open her mouth, spread her legs, bend over, part her cheeks and remove a tampon if she has one. Every time an inmate sees the people important to her, including lawyers and children, she must face this humiliation. For many women the price is too dear and they choose to withdraw from support networks on the outside.

Life or Death After Release
‘From a situation of imposed infantile dependence, rules and regulations covering every aspect of your life; what time you get up, how to make your bed, what time you eat breakfast, what time you’re allowed out to exercise, being locked in your cell – a person is then let out and expected to cope immediately'(Anonymous woman quoted in Fitzroy Legal Service 1988, 36).

After having been denied power over their own lives for years, and after living under systemic violence and repression, inmates are suddenly expected to set about finding accommodation and work and becoming parents again with little personal support. A $300 Social Security payment which is supposed to get them established from scratch and last them for a couple of weeks (NSW Standing Committee on Social Issues 1997).

The high incidence of deaths of women within weeks of leaving prison has never been recognised by governments and prison operators. Between 1987 and 1997 at least 93 women in Victoria died shortly after leaving prison, most dying in either temporary accommodation or on the streets.

Feminism and the Prison Struggle
The urgency of ending men’s violence against women has compelled many in the feminist movement to call for stronger penalties and even an expansion of the judicial and prison system for particular crimes. Prison issues are important for feminists, both because individual women are being oppressed by prison and, in a wider context, because the criminal justice system exists to support the larger power structure that oppresses us all. Prison is a type of violence which enforces a state’s power over its citizens, in the same way that rape and battering enforce the power of men over women.

The prison system is no remedy for violence against women for two reasons. Most such crimes are never acted upon by authorities. Secondly, the justice system is controlled through government by the economic elite and will continue to reflect their values and not those of feminists. Imprisonment will be used against us when we challenge the system. Feminists must participate in the search for alternate ways of dealing with those who oppress. With the awareness that the judicial/prison system is not our ally in the long run, we’ll be more reluctant to ask one part of the patriarchy to protect us from other parts. Our other task is to learn about and support the struggles of prisoners. Women inside fight back and resist all the time.
Personally, I spent four years in prison wondering what the lesson was that I was supposed to be learning and I still wonder….  

All statistics are drawn from NSW Department of Corrective Services 2000a; NSW Select Committee on Increase in Prisoner Population Interim Report 2000, CRC Justice Support’s ‘Headline Statistics’ April 2001, and Surviving Time Outside Prison (STOP) Campaign, Victoria 2000.

Written by Renee Lees for Stop the Womens Jail Anti-Prisons Resource Kit Published June 2001 by Justice Action Ph: (02) 9660-9111

Prison Issues

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