Family breakdowns causing repeat imprisonment of First Nations mums, study finds

Nicolas Perpitch ABC News 26 September 2014

A groundbreaking study on Aboriginal mothers in West Australian prisons has revealed the devastating effects of high levels of intergenerational incarceration on families.

Curtin University researchers conducted interviews with 84 Aboriginal mothers in prisons across the state as part of a National Health and Medical Research Council-funded project, examining the experiences of Aboriginal women in prison in WA and NSW.

Preliminary data from the survey revealed the frequency of the women's incarceration, how many had parents or children also in jail, the percentage who had been removed from their parents by welfare authorities, and their education levels.

The women spoke at length about their family backgrounds, the circumstances of their offending and the consequences of their incarceration on their children and wider families.

"I've never, ever had a relationship with my children, and my daughter's 18," a 38-year-old woman in Boronia prison said.

"It was like, for me to show them that mum does care, but I didn't know how to be a mum to them.

"It was really hard for me. All I know is jail life. Sad but true."

Jailed women's family members likely to have done time

National Drug Research Institute at Curtin University chief investigator Jocelyn Jones said the study looked at the women's health and resilience.

"We found that women had quite a high level of resilience considering all the trauma they'd come across in their lives," Ms Jones said.

The average age of the 84 women was 35.5, and they had 475 children between them, either biological or children who had been in their care.

Fifty-six per cent of the women had been jailed more than once, and 36 per cent had been imprisoned three or more times.

Forty-six per cent had spent time in juvenile detention, and half of them had done so before they were 13 years old.

When asked about their parents, 56 per cent reported they had a mother or father who had spent time in prison.

A lot of kids, mum goes to jail and they think they can do what they want.
38-year-old mother at Boronia prison

The figure was higher for their siblings, with 77 per cent saying they had a brother or sister that had been incarcerated.

"Not my mother, my mother's good, but my dad, yes … My brother's been to jail - my two brothers. Actually three of them and two sisters," a 37-year-old woman at Bandyup prison said.

A 23-year-old woman at Bandyup prison said her mother had borne the brunt of her imprisonment and her siblings' drug problems.

"She has had to deal with a lot of emotional baggage and it's just broke down the family in a lot of ways," she said.

"It's taken away the trust with me and her, and just done a lot of damage in a lot of ways."

Being a mum while in prison 'a challenge'

As for their own children, 38 per cent of the women said their offspring had had trouble with the police, and of 70 women with children aged 10 or above, 16 per cent of those children were currently incarcerated.

"Well a bit of the challenge was still trying to be that mum while you're in prison," a 38-year-old mother at Boronia prison said.

They have obligations not only to what the mainstream would say is their family, but to the Aboriginal community and their children are part of that.
Curtin University chief investigator Jocelyn Jones

"A lot of kids, mum goes to jail and they think they can do what they want, where with my children they do play up, like my son got suspended from school the other day for wagging."

A 24-year-old mother in the Goldfields regional prison said: "I'm not there to help my boy and give him the support that he needs from a mother."

Ms Jones said the women were often imprisoned for minor offences and did not learn how to parent their children.

"They have obligations not only to what the mainstream would say is their family, but to the Aboriginal community and their children are part of that.

"So there's this whole disruption to the original family and cultural network."

Aboriginal children enter criminal justice system at earlier age

Ms Jones said the study painted a unique picture.

"I think it's informing us of the dire straits of intergenerational incarceration," she said.

"It's telling us that Aboriginal children are coming into contact with the criminal justice system at an age earlier than non-Aboriginal children.

"And these are the children whose parents are in jail, their mothers are in jail, their fathers are in jail."

Twenty per cent of the 84 women had been removed from their families by welfare authorities as children, and the majority had shifted between family members during their early years.

Their education had suffered, with 78 per cent reporting they had left school by year 10, and 21 per cent saying they had received an education below year 8 level.

Mr Jones said the women were also often the victims of violence or the perpetrators of violence.

"Often the reason they're in prison is because they've committed a crime that they've done when they're intoxicated or on drugs," she said.

"So the issue needs to be dealt with out in the community as well.

"The problem is too big for the department of corrective services.

"I think what's lacking is the level of programs.

"They really need high-intensity programs and more gender specific and culturally specific [programs] because some of those issues the women have identified are very complex."