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Prison a revolving door of trauma for women

Prison a revolving door of trauma for women

By Karin Derkley

Access to Justice Women's Rights 


Women and girls are returning to prison over and over again because of “interjurisdictional neglect”, former prisoner, lawyer and CEO of Sisters Inside Debbie Kilroy told the LIV's Women in Leadership lunch last week.

"Prisons are a revolving door of trauma for women, their children, and the community," she said.

Most women are in prison for offences that would be deemed non-violent, she said. Even when their offences do involve violence they are often in reaction to violence.

"They have been criminalised through a combination of poverty, homelessness, violence, mental illness, substance abuse to self-medicated, acquired brain injuries and other forms of social exclusion."

Ms Kilroy told the lunch event that she spoke from experience. She was jailed in 1989 for drug trafficking for six years. When she left prison she was determined to not only turn her own life around but to help her fellow prisoners, including the woman who murdered her best friend in prison.

She established Sisters Inside, a human rights program for women prisoners, trained as a social worker and then as a lawyer and set up a legal service to help keep women out of remand.

Last year she set up an extraordinarily successful international crowdfunding program that raised enough money to pay outstanding fines of more than 100 Indigenous women who would otherwise have been imprisoned under Western Australian law. She is now lobbying to change WA legislation that allows people to be arrested for unpaid fines.

Interjurisdictional neglect refers to situations in which individuals or groups fall through the cracks due to the lack of interjurisdictional cooperation, Ms Kilroy said.

That is especially the case for Indigenous women who are imprisoned at a rate 21 times that of their non-Indigenous sisters. In the past 10 years the number of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander women in prison has doubled, she pointed out.

“Governments create those cracks by failing to see the links between safety, poverty, homelessness, and violence, and the ongoing project of colonisation.

"The systemic failure to address the connections has deadly consequences especially for First Nations women and girls."

Ms Kilroy told the luncheon she was deeply concerned about the trend of Australian governments building more prisons, and says she believes prisons fail to keep the community safe or to rehabilitate prisoners and should be abolished.

“Nationally we are seeing a trend towards more prisons, more cells, more resources directed to a failed prison industrial complex – and the Australian government is moving our policy and our legal system in the wrong direction.”

“Prison doesn’t rehabilitate, prison holds,” she said.

"Seventy-four per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in prison have been there before. If any other organisation had a 74 per cent failure rate …there would be urgent meetings as to how things could be done differently. But we keep pouring millions into the prison system with no accountability."

Funds used to build prisons should instead be directed towards building social housing, and funding health services and education, she said.

Former Supreme Court Justice Betty King also spoke at the lunch event, telling the audience that when she came to the Bar at age 22 she was only the 24th woman in the history of the Bar in Victoria.

It was only in 1975 that women were allowed to sit as jurors without the permission of their husbands and the first female High Court judge Mary Gaudron was appointed in 1987.

“How far we have come since then!” she said.

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