“Injustice anywhere,” Martin Luther King famously wrote in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” “is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” We tend to think of prison as a great leveller of sorts—a place of uniformity, routine and repetition for all. But there is inequality even behind bars. Actually, given that in Australia, women are the fastest growing population in prisons, there’s increasing inequality in getting behind bars too. Between 1995 and 2002, there was a 58% increase in the imprisonment rate for women in Australia, in contrast to a 15% increase in the rate for men and, as 2012 statistics show, the number of female prisoners has increased at a rate 21 times higher than the number of male prisoners since 2011. Females now make up approximately 7% of Australia’s total prisoner population.
So clearly men are the majority when it comes to incarceration. But the increasing figures for women are staggering.
Now we’re not saying that women can’t or don’t commit crime. We do. We know we do. Of course we do. But the accelerating rates of imprisonment of women might have something to say about the lack of recognition about gender inequality as it plays out in families and homes around Australia.
A recent report revealed around 20 cases where Aboriginal women had been sentenced to jail because they had retreated from claims against their abuser (speaking of appalling inequality make it your business to know how grossly over-represented Aboriginal women are in prisons ). These women, who were jailed for ‘public mischief’ were, in reality, acting out of survival and the promise of a life free from domestic violence. Imagine this: your partner has threatened gross violence against you and your children, but now promises to leave town forever if you retract your evidence of his abuse. What would you do?
This is just one example of how the criminal justice system can be blind to the power imbalances and cultural pressures experienced by women in their day-to-day lives. And once you’re in the system, there is further injustice and inequality. As ABS statistics show, most women prisoners (73%) are born in Australia. Another 7% of women were born in countries which are mainly English speaking, making 20% of women in prison from a wide range of countries where English is not the first language.
In the case of these women, who have often come from backgrounds of multiple disadvantage, imprisonment brings about specific difficulties, increased experiences of powerlessness, lack of knowledge and access to rights. This is certainly the finding of the 2010 Report on Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Women in Victorian prisons put out by the Centre for the Human Rights of Imprisoned People, which identifies racism, language barriers leading to lack of access to literature and education programs, unequal access to faith services and the absence of culturally and linguistically appropriate medical services as some of the inequalities immigrant and refugee women can face.
MCWH has begun to address the lack of culturally appropriate health information in prisons through an eight week education program delivered by our bilingual health educators, which aims to build knowledge about health and rights. For many of the women, the ability to claim their rights, through access to knowledge and education, reinstalls their confidence in themselves and in a system which they felt had previously let them down. Bear this in mind when hearing that prior to incarceration in NSW for example, 39% of female prisoners reported having never accessed a medical centre, 20% had never accessed a GP and 4% had never accessed any health care prior to incarceration.
We need to think about how health, education and other social services are set up to support women in the first place. It is economic security, access to information and personal wellbeing—not blame—that shapes outcomes.
Building more jails is never the answer. Instead we need to build our understanding of gender equity, indigenous inequality and cultural diversity if we are to achieve broader, systemic change in our justice system.