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Lawrie, Rowena --- "Speak Out Speak Strong: Rising Imprisonment Rates of Aboriginal Women" [2003] IndigLawB 24; (2003) 5(24) Indigenous Law Bulletin 5

Speak Out Speak Strong:
Rising Imprisonment Rates of Aboriginal Women

by Rowena Lawrie

The New South Wales (‘NSW’) Aboriginal Justice Advisory Council (‘AJAC’) has recently completed a Research Project (‘the Study’) which examines the rising imprisonment rates of Aboriginal women in NSW.[1] The Study was conducted due to AJAC’s concerns about the increasing and disproportionate number of Aboriginal women coming into contact with the criminal justice system and subsequently imprisoned. Also of significant concern to AJAC was the lack of qualitative information about Aboriginal women within the criminal justice system.

Aboriginal women constitute approximately 31 percent of all women imprisoned in NSW, and between 25-31 percent of the remand population. Aboriginal men are also over-represented in the criminal justice system and make up approximately 19 percent of the male prison population. The rate at which Aboriginal women are imprisoned in NSW has increased by 14 percent since 1995. The national imprisonment rate increased by 37 percent between 1988 and 1998.

Aboriginal women are the fastest growing population of prisoners in this country. Very little information exists that explains why this is occurring, and examines ways to reduce this level of rising over-representation. The Royal Commission Inquiry into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody has been the greatest law and order inquiry into Aboriginal justice issues in this country. It raised awareness about equality and fairness, and appropriate levels of care in custody. However, none of the recommendations focused on the concerns of Aboriginal women who were in prison, or who had partners or family in custody. Consequently, very little action concerning the implementation of those spirited recommendations have concentrated on Aboriginal women in custody.

The objectives of the Study were to identify the causes for imprisonment of Aboriginal women, examine the experience of Aboriginal women in the criminal justice system, and identify their needs once incarcerated. The Study consisted of two stages. The first stage involved a comprehensive survey of Aboriginal women in prison in NSW. This survey was designed by AJAC in consultation with the Department of Corrective Services.

It was important to involve Aboriginal women in custody in the process from the beginning of the project. A number of information sessions were hosted by AJAC for this purpose. A team of five female Aboriginal researchers interviewed 50 Aboriginal women at Mulawa, Emu Plains and Grafton Correctional Centres. Approximately 48 percent of the Aboriginal women who were in custody at the time of the interviews participated in Stage one. Stage two involved follow up narrative interviews with a small sample of the women who had participated in stage one. Approximately 96 percent of the Aboriginal women felt that the research team had greatly or very much captured a complete picture of their experience of custody.

The study found that Aboriginal women in custody are predominantly young, 68 percent of the population were under 30 years, with an average age of 25 years. The participants generally had low levels of educational attainment, most (70 percent) had left school before completing their high school certificate (year 10) and experienced high levels of unemployment. Approximately 92 percent of participants were not working at the time of their last offence, and 42 percent did not receive a Centrelink benefit. Just over one quarter said they had relied on crime as a total source of income. Many suggested that this was related to not accessing welfare or other financial supports available, and the great responsibilities of accommodating and bringing up children. One woman said she thieved for a living to support family because Centrelink did not provide any benefit.

Most Aboriginal women in custody had many roles within the community and were often the primary carer of their families. Approximately 86 percent of the women interviewed were mothers of between 1-6 children and 46 percent were single parents. Nearly one third (29 percent) also provided regular care to other children and to extended family members (29 percent). Women commented on how prison complicated community life, and the need to provide care and support to family members while they were not with them. Many were worried about who was providing the care to people they normally were responsible for and whether they would have access to financial, health and other support services.

Many of the Aboriginal women in custody had long histories of involvement in the criminal justice system. Approximately 60 percent of the participants had been convicted of a criminal offence while still juveniles, and at least 36 percent received their first conviction between 11 and 12 years of age. Nearly all (98 percent) participants had prior convictions as adults, and at least 26 percent had between 15 and 30 previous convictions. Three quarters of women interviewed had previously been sentenced to full time imprisonment. The results suggest that once Aboriginal women become involved in the criminal justice system it becomes very difficult to break the cycle of returning to the criminal justice system and imprisonment.

At least 80 percent of women in custody said alcohol or drugs were an underlying factor in their current imprisonment. Significantly, 68 percent of women surveyed stated that they were on drugs at the time of committing their last offence. Half of the women interviewed reported heroin as their primary choice of drugs, although many were poly drug users. Only 14 percent of women surveyed used alcohol at the time of committing their last offence, which is clearly different than the relationship between alcohol and offending for Aboriginal men. The study found a strong link between drug use and offending behaviour. For example one woman said ‘the reason why I am in here is because I assaulted someone ... I was on speed at the time ... and if I wasn’t on that, then I wouldn’t have done the assault’, and another woman said that the first time she was convicted was due to ‘a fraud charge ... I was twenty and got six months ... the circumstances behind the offence was drugs ... to pay for somewhere for us to live’.

Housing and accommodation were a serious problem facing the Aboriginal women in custody. At least 15 percent of women in custody who were mothers said they were homeless or had no fixed address. The lack of available housing, often lost whilst in custody if they previously had housing, becomes an increasing strain for Aboriginal women returning to the community. Often a home provides a cornerstone to regaining access to children who may have been displaced, or just the opportunity to ‘begin again’. A permanent residence can also assist with gaining entry and maintaining access to support programs and services which are based within the community. For example, entry to drug court as a diversion option to a custodial sentence requires having a residence in the metropolitan region. It will also affect access to sentencing options such as home detention and periodic detention.

The Study found that Aboriginal women in custody had experienced long and serious histories of abuse and were victims of crime. Approximately 70 percent of women surveyed said they experienced child abuse, and 70 percent were sexually assaulted as children. Most had suffered other forms of child abuse. Approximately 78 percent of women in custody had experienced violent abuse as adults, 75 percent were victims of domestic violence, and 44 percent were victims of a sexual assault. The Study shows that Aboriginal women in custody were victims of violent abuse long before they were committing crimes, and a huge gap exists for them now in gaining support services to help them resolve past trauma.

One of the most significant findings of the Study is the link between child sexual assault, drug addiction and the patterns of offending behaviour that led the women to be imprisoned. Approximately 98 percent of the Aboriginal women who were sexually assaulted as children stated that they were drug users, mainly heroin. It is clear that intervention concerning Aboriginal women in custody must tackle drug abuse, in particular heroin addiction, and it must address the childhood and adult experiences of violent abuse. Criminal justice interventions, such as crime prevention, diversion strategies and alternatives to custodial sentences, must address issues which affect Aboriginal women in their daily lives.

The Study highlights the lack of alternative justice procedures to custodial sentences for Aboriginal women, as well as the lack of treatment programs available to women outside of prison. A large proportion of participants stated they would like to have a drug free life but often needed support and help to achieve this. A significant proportion of women in custody were agreeable to community based justice sanctions and programs which heavily involved the Aboriginal community.

Many Aboriginal women stated the need to engage Aboriginal people and Elders in both the sentencing process and diversion strategies because it would help them take responsibility and control of their life. The women wanted options that both disciplined and supported them. Many women talked about the need for guidance. A number of options are currently being trialed throughout Australia. The Circle Sentencing program managed by AJAC involves Aboriginal Elders in the sentencing of Aboriginal offenders and is proving to have a great impact on offenders. It is reducing both the number of Aboriginal people being sent to prison and the rate of re-offending.

Half of the 80 percent of Aboriginal women who had enrolled in further education had completed courses. This shows that through dedication Aboriginal women in custody are able to triumph over great adversity and disadvantages in their lives. They expressed a great enthusiasm and interest about further education, employment and programs which could positively support re-entry into their communities. Many women interviewed felt this should happen with the support and guidance of respected and or elder Aboriginal people. The results show the clear potential of Aboriginal women to engage in formal education within the prison system and outside. This is one avenue to remove people from the cycle of re-offending and prison.

The Study shows that the underlying factors associated with disadvantage and offending include extensive and long contact with the criminal justice system, lack of educational and employment opportunities, long and serious histories as victims of crimes, heavy drug use, and a lack of housing and access to appropriate treatment services. The Study provides an informative first step towards addressing the immediate and serious concern about the rising over-representation of Aboriginal women in custody.

Rowena Lawrie is Senior Policy Officer at the Aboriginal Justice Advisory Council. She was the head researcher of the Speak Out Speak Strong Research Project.

[1] Aboriginal Justice Advisory Council, Speak Out Speak Strong Aboriginal Women in Custody Research Project (2003), <>, A full copy of the report can be obtained from the Executive Unit, AJAC.

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