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Data on prisons

Imprisonment rates and proportion of prisoners

As noted in the most recent ATSISJC report, 'although there are less Indigenous women in custody they are currently the fastest growing prison population and are severely overrepresented' (ATSISJC 2008: 304). The 2002 ATSISJC report suggested that 'causes of the increases are complex and vary between jurisdictions', citing the findings of the NSW Select Committee into the Increase in Prison Population that the most significant contributing factor was the increase in the remand population, while increases in police activity and changes in judicial attitudes to sentencing were also important (ATSISJC 2002: 137). There was no evidence to suggest that an increase in actual crime accounted for the prison increase.

The rate of Indigenous women's imprisonment across Australia rose 10 percent between 2006 and June 2009. Table 3 sets out imprisonment rates for Indigenous women (per 100,000) since 2006 by jurisdiction. As can be seen in Table 4, the actual numbers in the Australian Capital Territory and Tasmania are too small to enable any conclusions to be drawn. The Northern Territory had a sizable increase, while Queensland had a very small decrease. Analysis of the 2002 NATSISS data indicates that three percent of Indigenous females aged 15 years and over reported having been imprisoned at some point (Weatherburn, Snowball & Hunter 2006).

It should be noted that different age profiles of the Indigenous and non-Indigenous population can affect the imprisonment rate numbers, but the quarterly collection is unable to take age into account (ABS 2009a). Data from the prisoner census collection provide detail on the age-standardised imprisonment rates of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people but do not provide a breakdown by gender (see ABS 2007 for discussion of age-standardisation for Indigenous populations). By way of comparison, the June 2009 data indicate that the imprisonment rate for non-Indigenous women was 24.5 per 100,000; Indigenous women were therefore 16 times over-represented, compared with 13 times for men. McRae et al. (2009) note that while men constitute the large majority of Indigenous people in custody, the level of over-representation for women is even higher. In 2007–08, Indigenous women comprised 29 percent of women in prison, compared with 24 percent for men.

Earlier data which set out the over-representation by jurisdiction are set out in the 2002 ATSISJC report and indicate, for example, that in 2001–02, Indigenous women represented 52 percent of all women received into Western Australian prisons, although they constituted only three percent of the Western Australian female population (ATSISJC 2002). Behrendt, Cunneen and Liebesman (2009) report that the Indigenous prison population rose 343 percent between 1993 and 2003, compared with a rise of 110 percent for non-Indigenous women. The 2002 ATSISJC report indicated that at 30 June 2001, there were 370 Indigenous women in prison; seven years later, this number had risen to 608 (ATSISJC 2002).

Table 4 sets out the most recent data on the number of Indigenous women in prison by jurisdiction and the proportion they comprise of the local prison population, although the small sample size should be noted, especially in Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory. As can be seen, Indigenous female prisoners are in the majority in Western Australia (52% of the population) and the Northern Territory (83%), but account for only a relatively small proportion of prisoners in Victoria (6%). Although the numbers of Indigenous male prisoners are obviously much higher, women outnumbered them as a proportion of the relevant prison population in almost all jurisdictions. The comparative over-representation of Indigenous women, compared with men, was especially stark in Western Australia (52% vs 40%) and Tasmania (20% vs 12%).

Table 3: Imprisonment rates (per 100,000) for Indigenous women by jurisdiction, 2006–June 2009
NSWVicQldSAWATasNTACTAust
2006 463.9 145.0 270.8 291.3 628.1 149.4 124.9 78.3 346.2
2007 488.2 158.1 267.7 336.1 793.4 138.5 167.3 68.6 384.5
2008 483.5 171.9 258.9 309.1 633.5 139.8 188.5 227.5 361.0
2009–June quarter 489.5 184.9 265.4 389.0 630.1 119.7 183.5 244.7 368.5
% increase 12.5 18.8 -1.4 16.2 3.7 -30.1 71.2 314.7 10.1

Source: ABS 2009a

Table 4: Indigenous prisoners as proportion of prison population, by jurisdiction, 2007–08
JurisdictionNumber of Indigenous female prisoners% of female prison populationNumber of Indigenous male prisoners% of male prison population
NSW 220 28.8 1,919 25.3
Vic 15 6.3 230 5.8
Qld 115 27.1 1,380 30.0
SA 28 21.2 373 20.7
WA 141 51.5 1,411 40.4
Tas 9 20.0 57 12.1
NT 38 82.6 755 83.2
ACT 3 12.0 22 9.8
Aust 569 29.3 6,137 24.1

Source: ABS 2008

Prisoner numbers

Table 5 sets out the average daily number of female Indigenous prisoners since 2006 by jurisdiction, in which time the number of such prisoners has increased in all jurisdictions except Tasmania, where the numbers are too small to be of significance. The ABS notes, however, that caution must be taken in interpreting the increases in the percentage of Indigenous peoples in the prison population, as the increase may be due to alterations in the method of data collection and/or the willingness of Indigenous prisoners to participate and identify themselves as Indigenous (ABS 2008). Notably, the NSW Indigenous female prison population increased by 22 percent (higher than the national increase of 19%), while the NT population increased by 83 percent.

Table 5: Average daily number of female Indigenous prisoners, 2006–June 2009
YearNSWVicQldSAWATasNTACT Aust
2006 194 13 114 24 134 8 23 1 512
2007 209 15 115 29 175 7 32 1 584
2008 213 17 115 28 143 8 36 3 561
2009–June quarter 236 17 121 31 151 6 42 4 608
% increase 21.6 30.8 6.1 29.2 12.7 -25 82.6 300 18.8

Source: ABS 2009a

Sentence length

Figures 3 and 4 set out the mean and median length of sentences for female prisoners. As can be seen, Indigenous women generally serve shorter sentences than their non-Indigenous counterparts (although the median length for Victoria is in fact higher at 28.7 vs 24 months). The median length was 16 months for Indigenous women, compared with 30 months for non-Indigenous women, while the mean figures were 27.1 and 49.2 respectively. The shorter sentence length suggests that Indigenous women are being imprisoned for more trivial offences, especially public order offences (ATSISJC 2002). The data on expected time to serve, which are also available by jurisdiction, indicate that Indigenous women have a mean time of 17.7 months and median of 9.1 months, compared with 30.4 and 14.3 respectively for non-Indigenous women (ABS 2008). BOCSAR recently released a paper on the increase in the Indigenous imprisonment rate in New South Wales, in which it noted that this increase had been about the same for females as for males. The findings indicated that the increase in the NSW Indigenous imprisonment rate was due in part to an increase in sentence lengths (Fitzgerald 2009).

It is not possible to extrapolate from the most recent ABS data what proportion of Indigenous female prisoners are on remand, rather than serving a sentence, but BOCSAR's recent findings suggest that one-quarter of the increase in the NSW Indigenous imprisonment rate was due to a greater proportion of Indigenous defendants being refused bail, as well as an increase in the time they spent on remand (Fitzgerald 2009).

Figure 3: Mean sentence length in months, for female prisoners by Indigenous status and jurisdiction, 2007–08

 Mean sentence length in months, for female prisoners by Indigenous status and jurisdiction, 2007–08

Source: ABS 2008

Figure 4: Median sentence length in months, for female prisoners by Indigenous status and jurisdiction, 2007–08

 Median sentence length in months, for female prisoners by Indigenous status and jurisdiction, 2007–08

Source: ABS 2008

Blagg et al. (2005) refer to Victorian prison data indicating that more than one in three Indigenous women prisoners were unsentenced. Figures from the South Australian Office of Crime Statistics and Research (OCSAR) indicate that 75 percent of Indigenous women were on remand at the time of their discharge from custody, compared with 67 percent for non-Indigenous female prisoners (OCSAR 2006a). A survey of Indigenous women in NSW prisons found that 70 percent had been refused bail (Lawrie 2002). Advice provided by the NSW Department of Corrective Services indicated that the Aboriginal female remand rate can fluctuate anywhere between 25–31 percent at any given time and the report noted that 'a significant proportion of Aboriginal women are always remanded to custody, which raises many issues concerning access to bail, accommodation, parenting and health' (Lawrie 2002: 32).

Security classification

Behrendt, Cunneen and Liebesman (2009) suggest that Indigenous female prisoners tend to be classified as minimum security, but it is not clear on what data they base this assertion.

Table 6 sets out information collected by the SCRCSP on the proportion of prisoners who are detained in open versus secure prisons. A lower proportion of Indigenous prisoners are kept in open prisons in all jurisdictions except for New South Wales, where they exceed non-Indigenous prisoners and South Australia and the Northern Territory, where there are no women in open prisons.

Table 6: Proportion of female prisoners in open prison by Indigenous status and jurisdiction
JurisdictionIndigenousNon-Indigenous
NSW 44.5 37.4
Vic 1.3 19.0
Qld 14.2 21.7
SA 0.0 0.0
WA 33.8 36.5
Tas 0.0 0.0
NT 27.3 42.9
ACT 16.7 50

Adapted from SCRCSP 2009a

Characteristics of female Indigenous prisoners

Behrendt, Cunneen and Liebesman (2009) indicate that there are a number of specific characteristics of Indigenous female prisoners and that the majority have serious psychiatric issues and are over-represented among prisoners at risk. The SCRCSP (2009b) referred to research indicating that rates of hospital admissions for mental disorders were three times as high for Indigenous female prisoners as in the Indigenous population of Western Australia generally. They elsewhere noted that there are few data from which to draw conclusions about the scope, prevalence and burden of mental health problems among Indigenous people, especially for vulnerable groups, including prisoners and juveniles in detention (SCRCSP 2009b).

The 2002 ATSISJC report found that 22 percent of Indigenous women had self-harmed in custody, compared with 13 percent of non-Indigenous women (ATSISJC 2002). Blagg et al. (2005: 148) found in their interviews with female prisoners in Victoria that

[they] saw mental health as being the single biggest issue they faced in prison, and saw mental health as inextricably linked with other issues such as family violence, sexual abuse and addiction. They raised concerns about assessment processes, drug treatment and continuity in services.

A retrospective cohort study of adults imprisoned in New South Wales between 1988 and 2002 found that Indigenous women were 12.6 times more likely to die after release from custody than the general NSW population (compared with 4.8 times for Indigenous men; Kariminia et al. 2007). The main cause of death for women was mental and behavioural disorders (29%; cf accidental death for 22% of men). Information on the cause of death was not broken down by Indigenous status, with the authors merely noting that

The finding that male and female Aborigines had a higher overall [standardized mortality ratio] than the cohort as a whole is of significant public health importance. Aboriginal people are hugely over represented in the Australian prisoner population (11% of this cohort), but constitute around 2% of the NSW population. Detailed analysis on these data is needed to make meaningful conclusions about the findings (Kariminia et al. 2007: 314).

Although it should not be assumed that the Indigenous female prison population is homogenous in nature, Brooks (1996: 275) suggests that imprisonment is made more difficult for Indigenous women if their families are matrifocal, or mother-centred, and 'removes these women from the security of a community life which, frequently, is so tightly integrated on the basis of contiguity and kinship as to be totally alien to all but those who live it'. As noted by the SCRCSP, because there are fewer prisons for women, Indigenous females are often detained in centres far from their children and communities (SCRCSP 2009b). In addition, they may face communication difficulties, with a study of women prisoners in Western Australia indicating that Indigenous women spoke an Aboriginal dialect as their first language.

There is limited information about Indigenous female prisoners as mothers. Behrendt, Cunneen and Liebesman (2009) assert that although 80 percent of Indigenous female prisoners are mothers, they do not appear readily able to access Mothers and Children's Units. Research is required to better understand the needs of Indigenous women with infants and young children in prison and the appropriateness and ease of access to programs which enable such prisoners to keep their children with them. It would also be of benefit to examine the numbers of Indigenous women who seek to have their children placed with them in prison due to limited or inadequate familial support.

Furthermore, there is nothing known about the experiences and needs of the children of Indigenous women who are released from prison (Baldry & McCausland 2009). A survey of NSW Indigenous female prisoners found that 29 percent had primary care responsibilities for children other than their own; the same proportion were normally responsible for the care of other people, principally their parents and other family members (Lawrie 2002). The study noted that the fact that a number of participants were 'not completely satisfied or have shared concerns for their children while they are in custody adds to the already strained relationship with their children while they are serving a term of imprisonment' (Lawrie 2002: 22).

In addition, 43 percent of the women surveyed who had dependent children did not receive any income from paid employment or Centrelink (eg parenting payment) at the time of their last offence. Lawrie (2002: 27) therefore found that the

absence of a regular income leaves a huge gap for Aboriginal women, especially those trying to support a family or provide care for extended family members, and places additional pressure on an already difficult situation.

There also appear to be difficulties for such women in accessing post-release support programs and Baldry et al. (2006) identified Indigenous women as experiencing the highest rates of reincarceration and homelessness in their NSW and Victorian post-release study. There is reportedly only one Indigenous-run, post-release support program for Indigenous women in Australia—the Yulawirri Nurai program in New South Wales (Behrendt, Cunneen & Liebesman 2009: for details see ATSISJC 2004: 30–31). As Baldry and McCausland (2009: 296) noted, however,

There is no publicly available evaluation of the service, which is partially funded by the NSW Department of Corrective Services, so it is impossible to assess its effectiveness. However, it is not funded to provide and does not have access to accommodation or substantial services as part of its program. This suggests its long-term effectiveness may be undermined.

It would be desirable for an independent evaluation to examine the effectiveness of the Yulawirri Nurai program, as well as examining the possibility of attaching accommodation and other services to the program.

The survey of NSW prisoners indicated that although 73 percent of respondents said they would have the support of family and community after their release, 25 percent did not have any such support and two percent were unsure if they did (Lawrie 2002). A key recent development in this context is the announcement in November 2009 of a NSW pilot project to provide greater support to Indigenous women with dependent children leaving prison. The Aboriginal Women with Dependent Children Leaving Prison Program will provide local accommodation to the women and their children for 12 months following their release from custody, as well as intensive support from Indigenous caseworkers regarding employment, counselling and drug and/or alcohol rehabilitation services. The caseworkers will also work with the children to provide necessary support (Burney 2009). The local Indigenous community was canvassed in 2006 to gain support and to establish a Reference Group which reaffirmed the project's intent. Penrith Women's Refuge was successful in its application to operate and manage the project; the refuge had already been working in partnership with Dillwynia and Emu Plains prisons to develop a case management plan for all interested women prior to their release from custody. The program is already operational and is funded for two years. It is managed by two Indigenous caseworkers, with a consultant engaged to conduct an evaluation throughout the program's progression. All participants in the program will be required to commit to a case plan/case management model with the Indigenous case managers (T French personal communication 9 March 2010).