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Journal article

Incarcerated Aboriginal women’s experiences of accessing healthcare and the limitations of the ‘equal treatment’ principle

First Peoples incarceration Women prisoners First Nations women Health services accessibility First Peoples health New South Wales

Colonisation continues in Australia, sustained through institutional and systemic racism. Targeted discrimination and intergenerational trauma have undermined the health and wellbeing of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population, leading to significantly poorer health status, social impoverishment and inequity resulting in the over-representation of Aboriginal people in Australian prisons. Despite adoption of the ‘equal treatment’ principle, on entering prison in Australia entitlements to the national universal healthcare system are revoked and Aboriginal people lose access to health services modelled on Aboriginal concepts of culturally safe healthcare available in the community. Incarcerated Aboriginal women experience poorer health outcomes than incarcerated non-Indigenous women and Aboriginal men, yet little is known about their experiences of accessing healthcare. This article reports the findings of the largest qualitative study with incarcerated Aboriginal women in New South Wales (NSW) Australia in over 15 years.

The researchers employed a decolonizing research methodology, ‘community collaborative participatory action research’, involving consultation with Aboriginal communities prior to the study and establishment of a Project Advisory Group (PAG) of community expert Aboriginal women to guide the project. Forty-three semi-structured interviews were conducted in 2013 with Aboriginal women in urban and regional prisons in NSW.

While Aboriginal women reported positive and negative experiences of prison healthcare, the custodial system created numerous barriers to accessing healthcare. Aboriginal women experienced institutional racism and discrimination in the form of not being listened to, stereotyping, and inequitable healthcare compared with non-Indigenous women in prison and the community.

‘Equal treatment’ is an inappropriate strategy for providing equitable healthcare, which is required because incarcerated Aboriginal women experience significantly poorer health. Taking a decolonising approach, the researchers unpack and demonstrate the systems level changes needed to make health and justice agencies culturally relevant and safe. This requires further acknowledgment of the oppressive transgenerational effects of ongoing colonial policy, a true embracing of diversity of worldviews, and critically the integration of Aboriginal concepts of health at all organizational levels to uphold Aboriginal women’s rights to culturally safe healthcare in prison and the community.

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