Koori women make up the fastest growing segment of the Victorian prison population. They are currently being incarcerated at a much higher rate than both non-Koori women and Koori men.
These women are generally young. Many have grown up experiencing family violence, sexual abuse and intergenerational trauma. A significant number were removed from their families as children and placed in out-of-home care. Mental illness – including anxiety, depression and posttraumatic stress disorder – and drug and alcohol dependence are widespread among this group.
While Koori women often come into contact with police for property offences, they are most likely to be imprisoned for robbery, burglary and assault. Multiple and outstanding fines is another frequent issue for Koori women. A failure to pay these fines or to comply with their conditions can eventually lead to imprisonment.
Discrimination is a daily reality for Koori women, across nearly every part of their lives. This is also reflected in their contact with the justice system. Koories are significantly more likely to come into contact with police than non-Koori men and women. Community members told us that the over-representation is a result of not just higher offending rates but also bias (unintentional or otherwise) in the way our justice system responds to Koori women. This reflects previous findings by the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody that exposed how discrimination and disadvantage drives over-representation.
While a range of successful initiatives have been established in Victoria for Koori men and other groups, there is a lack of investment in prevention and diversion options for Koori women.
Once a Koori woman enters prison, she is likely to be imprisoned again. As our research found, many women end up “churning” through the system on multiple occasions, often for relatively short periods of time.
This obviously has severe consequences for these women, separating them from their families and culture, jeopardising housing and employment opportunities and compounding experiences of trauma and marginalisation. Furthermore, given many Koori women play a crucial caregiver role, their imprisonment also has an enormous impact on their children, families and communities.
When the mother is removed from the family unit, this often signifies the removal of the only secure point of reference in the child’s life. The impact on children is profound.
The ongoing impact of prison on children and family has largely been absent from the discussion about imprisonment. However, it is one of the most significant costs associated with the increasing incarceration of Koori women.
Repeated imprisonment can fundamentally disrupt the relationship between Koori women and their children, especially as their children grow and their needs change. It also places these children at a much greater likelihood of contact with the child protection system, which in turn is a major risk factor in putting the next generation of Koori young people on a pathway to prison.
The increasing incarceration of Koori women caused by a lack of appropriate diversion options and postrelease support, compared to men, offends the right to equality before the law. It may also breach the positive duty to eliminate discrimination contained in section 15 of the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 (Vic). This requires work on behalf of all relevant agencies to identify and end systemic discrimination on the basis of race and or gender.
Similarly, failing to address the underlying factors that lead to increasing rates of imprisonment undermines the rights of Koori women, and their children, protected in the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act 2006 (Vic). It also places significant financial costs on the Victorian public and works against government efforts to promote community safety.