Rachel Browne Sydney Morning Herald December 7, 2012
A jump in the number of Aboriginal women in custody has led to a marked increase in the number of women imprisoned in Australia.
A Bureau of Statistics report shows the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander female prisoners has risen by 20 per cent since June 30 last year, compared with a 3 per cent rise in non-Aboriginal female prisoners.
Prison policy expert Eileen Baldry, of the University of NSW, said the increase should be cause for alarm.
"Over the past 15 years the rate of Aboriginal women in prison has soared," she said.
"That raises some interesting questions. Are Aboriginal women innately more criminal than non-Aboriginal women? No, they are not."
She said Aboriginal women often lacked the social support given to the general population, while being at higher risk of domestic violence, mental or cognitive impairments, homelessness and poverty.
Dr Baldry said the rate of imprisonment had increased despite warnings that improved support mechanisms were preferable to jail.
"It has continued despite warnings that there should be other ways to deal with this, largely through providing support for these women," she said.
Figures in the Statistics Bureau's report, titled Prisoners in Australia, show the number of women in prison has grown by 48 per cent over the past decade while the number of male prisoners has risen by 29 per cent.
The bureau's director of the National Centre for Crime and Justice Statistics, Fiona Dowsley, said female prisoners made up only a small proportion of the overall prison population, with 2201 females in custody nationally.
"Females now make up 7 per cent of Australia's total prisoner population," she said.
There are 29,383 people behind bars in Australia, an increase of 1 per cent since 2011 and 31 per cent since 2002.
The Northern Territory has the nation's highest imprisonment rate of 826 per 100,000 adults, followed by Western Australia with 267 per 100,000.
Assault was the most common offence for males, accounting for 17 per cent of prisoners, followed by sexual assault, which accounted for 15 per cent.
Drug-related crime was the most common reason women ended up in jail, accounting for 17 per cent of cases, followed by assault, which accounted for 14 per cent.
The prison population is young, with median ages of 33.9 years for men and and 34.6 for women.
Most prisoners had done time previously, with 55 per cent having served a sentence in an adult prison before their current spell inside.
About 80 per cent of prisoners were Australian-born, with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people making up just over a quarter of the prison population.
EMILY BOURKE: Women's prisons are filling up at an alarming rate in Australia.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics says the number of women behind bars has increased by more than 8 per cent in the last year - a much faster rate of increase than for men.
The surge is being driven by a 20 per cent increase in the number of Indigenous women being locked up, as Simon Lauder reports.
SIMON LAUDER: When they were counted earlier this year there were 29,383 prisoners in Australia - a 31 per cent increase in the last decade. Only 7 per cent of the prison population is female, but that figure is changing fast.
The population of women's prisons has increased by 48 per cent in the last decade, and 8.4 per cent in the last year. That's a rate of growth more than 20 times faster than for men.
That's concerning enough, but the reason for that increase is even more alarming. In the last year there was an increase of 20 per cent in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in prison.
Dr Eileen Baldry is a Professor of Criminology at the University of New South Wales.
EILEEN BALDRY: It is very extraordinary but I have to say it’s a figure that has been in a sense predicted over the last 15 to 20 years.
SIMON LAUDER: Dr Baldry says prisons are increasingly being used to lock up women who are marginalised and traumatised and they should be getting more help instead.
EILEEN BALDRY: So what we're doing is we are locking up people who have disability impairment at very high rates but this is very obvious amongst Aboriginal women.
SIMON LAUDER: Just trying to account for that 20 per cent, where is that happening the most do you think?
EILEEN BALDRY: Yeah, look, there are a number of things happening here. One is that Aboriginal women have much higher rate of remand than others but also they have a higher rate of shorter sentences because what they're being put into prison for are, on the whole, not the most serious offences.
Assault is certainly reasonably high but that is often assault which does not actually do bodily harm to somebody. Now it doesn't excuse it but these are offences for which they get relatively lower rates of sentences and incarcerations.
Now the large numbers of Aboriginal women are seen in the Northern Territory, Western Australia and New South Wales.
SIMON LAUDER: Since 2002, imprisonment rates for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians increased by about 700 people per 100,000 adults, to more than 1900. The rate for non-Indigenous prisoners increased by just six per 100,000 to 129.
The national director of Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation, Jacqueline Phillips, says the latest statistics show that the Government Close the Gap program needs to address imprisonment rates.
JACQUELINE PHILLIPS: One of the things that we have been lobbying for are targets to reduce Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander imprisonment at the federal level as part of the Closing the Gap targets which we have as I said on health, education, employment.
We've been lobbying COAG (Council of Australian Governments) for these targets now for about 12 months. COAG meeting today and yet again those targets are not on the agenda for discussion and I think with the statistics coming out this week, the 20 per cent growth in the Aboriginal women population in the last year, it really highlights a failure and a blindness by COAG on this really fundamental and urgent issue.
EMILY BOURKE: That's Jacqueline Phillips from Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation, speaking to Simon Lauder.