The Punitive Prison System, Violence and Women’s Survival

Kitty-Jean Laginha analyses the illogical and detrimental character of criminal punishment.

From a criminological perspective, incarceration, as presently practised, is irrational. Imprisonment leads to increased recidivism as well as highly probable long-term psychological and emotional damage (coupled with isolation and severed connections to networks and family), resulting in those who have experienced it being unable to participate in the world upon release. Goals of rehabilitation and deterrence exist on paper but not in reality.

Criminologist David Garland tracks the decline of the rehabilitative ideal toward the end of the 20th century, arguing that it no longer expresses the overarching ideology of the system and is routinely subordinated to other penal goals, particularly retribution and incapacitation.

This satisfies popular political demands for safety and vengeance, showing the tendency of the modern prison system toward penal populism and a ‘new punitiveness’.

The declared goals of deterrence and rehabilitation are deeply questionable as the practice of imprisonment entrenches existing structures of oppression.

This can be explained with reference to the effects of imprisonment on women. Sociological studies and statistical data show that overwhelmingly, most female prisoners have experienced trauma in their lives, most frequently domestic or sexual violence, whether it be traumatic episodes or repeated long term assault.

Drug and alcohol related offences are ubiquitous as women use these substances as an escape from violence or their dealing as a source of revenue for survival. Many offences do not involve injury to others and many offences occur at a time of intense crisis in their lives.

Many of these women are in prison for fighting to survive in a system that fails them, time after time. Prisons will fail these women just like police, family courts, and welfare systems. They are shoved into another institutional nightmare that will ultimately spit them out without support, welfare or communities to return to.

A 2011 study by Monash University’s Dr Bree Carlton and Dr Marie Segrave on women’s survival post-imprisonment attempts to account for women’s disproportionately higher risk of post-release unnatural death compared to men by considering the relationship between institutional pain, traumatic life episodes and the multiple harms and disadvantages women experience inside and outside the system. They find that prison tended to magnify pre-existing traumas, placing women at risk upon release.

Other intersections of oppression affect women’s experience in prison. According to the 2008 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Report, Indigenous women are currently the fastest-growing prison population.

In Carlton and Segrave’s paper, an Indigenous woman Gwen explains that the Stolen Generation and the cycle of institutionalisation and resulting fragmentation of families and culture bred the current crisis of young people being incarcerated: “Aboriginal women in prison are all products in some way of the Stolen Generation.”

The trauma of colonisation and the resultant degradation of Indigenous communities and identities manifests in unprecedented levels of Indigenous incarceration.

Interestingly, in Carlton and Segrave’s study on women in prison, they interviewed many female prisoners and ex-prisoners and found a recurring theme of the potential of imprisonment to simultaneously magnify pre-existing traumas as well as offer a reprieve from external pressures and harms.

However, this potential is not a function of the inherent declared ‘rehabilitative’ qualities of prison, but as a result of physical separation from hardships often related to poverty, marginalisation, abusive relationships or drug use. This study seems to show that women are able to have some respite from literal and institutional violence when they are literally behind bars. It confirms that there is no safe place for women.

Why is our society unable to provide these women the basic right to safety? A case in point: women-only refuges, essential for women seeking safety from domestic and sexual violence, are so low a priority according to our state government that funding has been reduced and directed to Christian-based services.

A number of regional NSW refuges are facing closure, volunteer and staff shortages, pay reductions and lack of resources. These women will either become homeless or return to violence. The ignorance, short-sightedness and lack of compassion and understanding of the state and federal government on these issues is absolutely disgusting.

Many women are working to resist changes and call for an inquiry into the Going Home Staying Home reforms that recommended these detrimental funding changes.

If you are also passionate about this then please get involved, whether it be in a collective/organisation or as individuals, writing letters, volunteering, protesting and showing our anger over social media.

Look up ‘No Shelter’ and ‘Students for Women Only Services’. Consider getting involved in the demand for a safe world for women. If you read this in time, attend the ‘Stop Killing Women’ vigil at 5:30 pm on May 26 at UTS.