Through steel doors: Wom*n at odds with Australia’s prison system

An investigation into the trials faced by those within the prison system, and those advocating for a new approach to Australian criminal justice

The same artwork is pictured twice, mirrored vertically. It depicts the silhouette of a person sitting down behind bars, head in their hands. Artwork by Olivia Allanson

Content Warning: This article deals with experiences of incarceration, as well as sexual assault, domestic violence, mental health, violence and substance dependency.

She arrives by truck handcuffed, and is walked directly into a gated reception. It’s stark and quiet and the space echoes. The walls are white and fluorescent and the air smells like disinfectant and something else that the disinfectant was meant to kill. She is led into a cell and asked to take off her clothing, squat, open her mouth and run her hands through her hair. For the next three weeks she remains in induction while awaiting classification. Sounds of the cement block, a cough, a scream, a fight, are amplified by the hollow spaces. She has been given a garbage bag on entry with track pants, plastic cutlery and a pair of white volleys, the closest size that will fit. Inside and outside her cell it is volatile and violent. A wom*n with which she shares a bunk bashes her head against the cell wall into the early hours of the morning. She has been given one Panadol caplet for the severe drug withdrawal symptoms that plague her system. If they’re not violent the days are mostly empty, moving from one basic space to another – the food is carb-filled, wom*n fight over the two TV channels available in the lounge, the yard is cemented and the wom*n walk in circles for sunlight and exercise.

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Little is publicly known about the devastating effects of incarceration in Australia. By its very nature, prison withholds people from the communities from which they came, preventing them from accessing rehabilitation and preventing the public from any belief that they should have the right to. Currently, the number of prisons in Australia and the number of inmates they hold are steadily rising while the national crime rate continues to fall. Wom*n in Australian prisons make up only 8% of the incarcerated population yet the rates at which the number of new wom*n are imprisoned is rising by 38% annually. Statistically, communities are the safest they have ever been, yet strict bail laws ensure that wom*n fall into the prison system quicker and easier than ever before. Additionally, more women are in prisons for shorter stays often on remand, awaiting sentencing. In New South Wales (NSW), the number of wom*n in prisons is the highest of any other state with a total of 996 wom*n incarcerated in 2018 in NSW alone. One day in prison is enough to ruin a wom*n’s life, and, with the destruction that these stays cause, the likelihood of a wom*n returning to prison once she has first entered is high.

The narrative expressed earlier is Kat Armstrong’s experience of incarceration, a wom*n, mentor and advocate, who has moved in and out of prison for ten years. Her story is not unique and her voice, and many voices like hers, are commonly unheard or regularly disregarded. Prisons themselves prevent wom*n like Kat from accessing rehabilitation and the government behind them fails to both allocate funding for the supportive programs needed and structure those support methods effectively. The prison system is devoid of support and oppresses based on gender, class and race. This is why wom*n’s experiences must be highlighted. The structure of these institutions inherently disadvantage them and their issues are made invisible, pushed aside and shrouded in a much larger discourse of incarceration. For Indigenous wom*n embroiled in this system, the structure and methods of these environments are particularly devastating. For them, prison environments enhance a broader narrative of cultural dispossession.

This is a depiction of stories of Australian wom*n who have been incarcerated. It outlines only some of the injustices often concealed and warped by government and media. It does not encapsulate the experience of imprisoned men, nor do we, as writers, attempt to encompass all the perspectives and issues facing each wom*n who has been incarcerated either – this in hindsight would simply be far too big a task.

Instead, we observe the commonalities of some of these wom*n’s experiences which make clear the inherent flaws in these hidden, ancient and damaging structures. To observe the work of organisations and advocates in this field is to also understand that the labor they are taking on is at odds with the government, which continues to fund the construction of new prisons without the distribution of program or rehabilitation support to go inside them.

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For wom*n in particular, there are gendered dynamics to the patterns and structures of incarceration that further damage those kept in its confinements. Kat spent her first night trying to stop the wom*n with which she shared her cell from “exposing her brains against the wall.” Having been in prison before, Kat knew not to ask these officers for assistance. “They will just laugh at you,” she said. If other women in the prison were to hear you, you would be punished by the wom*n for your weakness. “You have to automatically know this whole policy and politics level of what you can and can’t do. There’s no book, there’s no one telling you what to do and it’s a very volatile and violent area.”

The cells in which these wom*n are placed destroy any sense of privacy from fellow prisoners or male prison officers. A lack of access to exercise, daylight, fitted clothing and an abundance of high carbohydrate filled food finds some wom*n unable to recognise their own weight gain. These wom*n have been displaced, wiped of any personal belongings and, unless they have money when they enter a cell, have no access to communication and subsequently to family or to their children. The Arunta phone system is the only connection line allowed for those wealthy enough to afford to be in contact with their family. “When you come into induction, you’re given a sheet of paper with 6 contact numbers on that list, so in three weeks if that Arunta system is set up and you have money you are able to make a call,” said Kat. The effect of this is enormous for wom*n. “If you have children in your care and you haven’t been able to phone them or tell them you’re in custody, more often than not they are lost to children and community services. Family members usually do the stressing and the searching themselves to try and find out where those women are. If you’re estranged from family, people might not know for six months where you are,” said Kat.

A lack of communication is just as damaging to the educative rehabilitation of criminalised wom*n as it is to their family ties. Kat Armstrong commenced a law degree while in prison. An application to commence studies for Kat was outstretched and restricted. You are regularly told “stop bothering us with these applications…you’ll always be in and out of gaol.” Volunteer organisations like Justice Action, a group that fights for the legal, communication and education rights of incarcerated individuals, strive to deliver those studying while incarcerated with the academic resources they require. At the same time, wom*n like Kat have their books thrown into the garbage by prison guards on duty. “I was waiting on my law books which academics had organised to be delivered to me and I was wondering why I still hadn’t received them yet,” said Kat. The only reason Kat found out this was occurring was because a fellow inmate whose job it was to clean and sweep the mail room, found them in the garbage and smuggled them back into Kat’s cell. “This is what we’re up against,” Kat said. “We’re regularly told that we’re hopeless if we want to progress.”

Prison is, for the most part, undramatic and stagnant, damagingly so, with unimaginable bursts of violence and conflict. The first stage of entry, a space in which up to 60 wom*n are held, many on remand, is called induction. “Induction is a really volatile, violent area where you have the majority of women withdrawing from drugs, many are experiencing extreme mental health issues and I don’t mean just stress. I mean serious mental collapse due to withdrawal symptoms,” said Kat.

For the twenty-four hours of the day that wom*n remain locked in these buildings they are herded from place to place with little consequence and overwhelmingly repetitive patterns. They are removed from their cells to an open space to eat, sent to a communal TV room “where wom*n fight over the two television channels available” for several hours. They’re walked in circles in the yard for exercise, heavily watched and regulated. They are returned to their cells in the early afternoon where they remain until 7:30 when they will repeat the arduous process again. These processes are completely dehumanising, devoid of purpose and energy. They can and do gradually derail personal autonomy.

These communal environments wipe wom*n who have been incarcerated from their rights to privacy and safety. They are packed in, trapped in a cyclical environment, devoid of transformation, communication or support which contributes to their dehumanisation. These wom*n’s bodily autonomy are almost completely removed in the process of these systems. “Being strip searched, especially if you’re a victim of sexual assault which I have been, is a really horrible experience,” said Kat Armstrong. For those triggered by physical touch or association, the knowledgeable professionals required are simply not provided. Silverwater prison for example holds up to 300 women and up to 60 women in induction at any one time with two psychologists on hand,” Kat told us. At this stage, prison environments are volatile and devoid of this kind of specific support.

Statistics provided by Justice Action suggest that in 2017, of the wom*n that entered prisons in Australia, 61% suffer from depression and 51% from anxiety, while 70% have witnessed a traumatic event and 71% have been in an abusive relationship. These statistics are almost too overwhelming to personalise — they paint a picture of a group of people who, in the early parts of their life, have likely suffered terrible experiences, causing complex trauma.  We do not have access to statistics confirming whether these wom*n accessed medical support for their conditions. However it does not seem to be a far cry to suggest in many cases this would be unlikely, making prisons one of, if not the first, sustained contact they have with state support services.

From those we spoke to, it seems as though prisons only abate the complex traumas and severe mental health problems wom*n often enter with. Kaz Zinnetti is completing a masters in criminology and criminal justice, and both volunteers as a mentor for, and participates in research projects with the Women’s Justice Network (WJN), which provides support and mentorship for wom*n in and upon release from Australian prisons. She has also had personal experience with the criminal justice system. For Kaz, trans and gender-diverse women face structural disadvantages before entering prison, and may not have access to required health care resources. “Prisons are generally not the place for those with severe mental health issues.”

Kaz points out that, considering how high incidences of domestic violence are for wom*n, and the debilitating impact that trauma can have, wom*n are effectively “criminalised [by the Australian justice system] through responding to acts of violence perpetrated against them.”

In a context where prisons are themselves a common source of trauma, there seems to be a particular injustice when those same prisons do not provide adequate mental health support for the wom*n within them.

A 2014 paper presented to the NSW Parliament by the Community Justice Coalition and Women in Prison Advocacy Network, indicated that only “two out of the seven women’s prison facilities in NSW offer sexual assault programs.” Run by qualified professionals and independent of prison staff, the wom*n who participated reported high satisfaction with their care. However,  these programs were only pilots and therefore of a small scale. “They were insufficiently accessible for the number of women in prison who are in need of sexual assault counseling across the State,” the paper remarked.

The inadequacies of gender-unique health care provision extend far further than mental health services. Kaz considers herself a particular advocate for the rights of LGBTQI prisoners, given her personal connection to the community, and the fact that they receive disproportionately little attention. Kaz tells us that, transgender or gender diverse women may find it incredibly difficult to get access to appropriate transition treatment or specialists.

Additionally, even if there was sufficient political good-will, it would still be difficult to fix such problems: Australian prisons record prisoner information using binary gender-classifications and documentation.

Prisons continue to subject wom*n to harsh prison conditions. Those wom*n have been criminalised, at least in-part, due to their history of complex trauma, or membership of minority communities. All the while, despite being in the care of the state, they are not given the health-care one would imagine be prioritised in an otherwise rehabilitative justice system.

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Wom*n’s health and wellbeing has been made invisible in society for hundreds of years. The wider narrative of a disassociated community that patriarchally ignores or disregards the welfare of wom*n is made more serious and measurable for women facing intersectional oppression. They are generally deemed the most hysteric, undeserved, worthless and outcasted of all wom*n. As a harsher and more invasive microcosm of this country’s broader cultural narrative, Australian prisons enhance this mentality. A community and government driven strive to “lock em up” is also an excuse to distance ourselves from a select few that perhaps require the most societal support.

Prisons are not making the community safer, as many would believe, because wom*n are not made better by the system. They are released back into the community with the trauma of their experience in prison — short or long — stacked atop any trauma they may have accumulated throughout their lives. Kat Armstrong tells us, “You shouldn’t come out of the system more damaged than when you went in.”  A rise in media representation of wom*n in prison has seen our national broadcaster begin to air programs depicting the lives of the rehabilitated criminalised wom*n. However, the profiles remain hollow, devoid of the truly devastating realities of daily life in prisons and their lingering effects.

There is still little understanding of the ironically criminal violence and trauma that grows behind these government funded bars. “They’re not talking to people like me,” Kat tells us. “Until people get the direct honest insight of what prison does to somebody of how harmful, how negative and how oppressive it is, they’re happy to ignore the idea that people are locked up in this way.”

Perhaps there’s also a level of wilful inadvertance in how the community disassociates itself from those who are incarcerated, branding them as ‘hopeless criminals.’ Without the support of governments, smaller organisations, often wholly consisting of volunteers and previously incarcerated individuals, are left to resolve the destructive aftermath of the prison system. Surely it should not be their responsibility.

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While those in prisons suffer quietly, battling for public sympathy, upon leaving, many wom*n find themselves falling further into obscurity.

Speaking to Ally Colquitt, who spent time in prison, is a graduate of the Women’s Justice Network and now is a member of their advisory panel, we got an idea of the personal difficulties wom*n go through trying to re-enter society.

Ally, now 35, grew up around alcoholism in her Coffs Harbour home. Although she drank from 14, she did well in school and aspired to continue studying at university. After dropping out, she found herself working in alcohol-centered jobs, and eventually developed a drug dependency. She was arrested in 2015, at age 31, for drug-related offenses. Though her life until then was not merely defined by drug and alcohol-consumption, Ally says that their influence explains much of why she was inevitably criminalised.

Ally now has a community services diploma, and helps shape WJN to be a positive influence in the lives of those they mentor and advise. She hopes to set up an art program for kids with behavioural problems, who might have already had contact with the juvenile prison system. Ally is very open in comparing the details of her situation to many wom*n she was incarcerated with or now works amongst, whether that be her ongoing battle with substance addiction or the trauma associated with contact with the justice system.

Despite being criminalised as the result of her dependencies, she received very little rehabilitative support. The Intensive Drug and Alcohol Treatment (IDAT) program that runs in NSW prisons is often only available to those with “severe” dependency issues, with “a history of repeat offenses and drug related crime.” When Ally referred herself to the IDAT program in her prison, she was a first time offender, who had never been in rehabilitation and so was deemed ineligible for the program.

When Ally was released in 2017, she was still battling substance addiction, and it was only with the support of the WJN that she was able to find a substantial rehabilitation service to help her engage her addiction. “It felt like no one wanted to help me,” Ally recounts. “When you’re reaching out for help and getting nothing, it is really hope-destroying.”

All the advocates we spoke to told a similar story to Ally’s: parole officers tasked with helping wom*n find stable housing, employment, health services, and education are overwhelmed to the point where they are not able to provide sufficient case-management.

Beyond inadequate funding, parole also seems particularly inflexible for the unique constraints of wom*n with children. Kaz explains that some women’s parole breaches may be a result of being primary care-givers of children. Inflexible parole requirements  can easily force mothers who need to care for their children to risk recidivism, a pertinent case of the criminal justice system’s inattentiveness to the gendered expectations of parenthood.

This all takes place in a broader process that displaces already vulnerable wom*n from their families and communities, in many cases also aggravating existing complex trauma.

In Ally’s case, her WJN mentor — a social work student from the University of New South Wales — was allowed by corrective services to form a relationship with her, and then provide both friendship and hands-on support once Ally left prison. Where corrective services is merely able to “house women, [rather than] fix their lives”, Ally suggests the WJN empowered her, and told her that she was “capable.” Where national statistics for female recidivism sit around 45%, the wom*n that engaged with the WJN sit at a rate of almost 7%. For Ally, this is because, unlike corrective services, the WJN takes a holistic approach to supporting criminalised wom*n, rather than punishing them for their vulnerabilities.

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Those in the WJN are by no means the only people that recognise the insufficiencies or internal contradictions of Australia’s current approach to criminal justice. Amongst those we did speak with, and those we were unable to, there was a mosaic of political organisations. All of them were responding to the same crisis: wom*n left forgotten as they are scorned by the cyclical criminal justice system in Australia.

While the WJN and Women’s Legal Service assist women affected by criminalisation, other organisations focus on intervention prior to criminalisation taking place. Debbie Kilroy, the founder of Sisters Inside, is currently operating a campaign to stop West Australian (WA) wom*n being prisoned for unpaid fines, operating off the logic that poverty should not be a reason for criminalisation. As of 4 August 2019, the fundraiser stood at $426 677, and she continues to lobby the WA Attorney General John Quigley to reform the laws in question. Heartbreaking but high profile stories of women like Ms Dhu, who died in a WA watch house she was being held in for unpaid fines, have sparked media attention, energising discussions about the need for the abolition of prisons as a tool of law enforcement.

There are also organisations which spend their resources lobbying against the broader justice approach being taken, arguing for system reforms that embrace less-punitive and more compassionate approaches to those vulnerable groups currently being criminalised. In addition to prisoner support, Sisters Inside have also hosted conferences for policy discussion around prison abolition, and alternate justice approaches. In November 2018, the 9th international Imagining Abolition Conference brought people to Brisbane to discuss the “failure of prison reform; over-imprisonment of First Nations people; systemic racism and sexism; state violence and deaths in custody”, amongst many other topics. Such discussions often involve many wom*n who have had experience with the justice system themselves, and aim to stamp out the information deficits that exist in broader society.

The picture of these groups cannot properly be encapsulated within the scope of one article. However, commonalities exist between individuals and organisations. These advocates recognise that a great deal of problems exist in the status quo of the Australian criminal justice. Some are more willing to openly make a prison-abolitionist argument. Others respect these arguments, and openly praise the work of abolitionists like Debbie Kilroy, but see there being a trade-off in how they personally can spend their energy, thus choosing to instead intervene in the lives of wom*n suffering in the cycle of criminalisation. Together, however, these groups form a broader movement of people, comprised largely of those with lived experience in the justice system themselves, who work tirelessly and often thanklessly to respond and organise against the structural failings of Australian prisons.

Of course, they can be nowhere near as effective without the centralised powers or immense capital of a government. To cease the endless cycle of criminalisation that ravages the lives of indigenous, low SES, trauma-impacted wom*n all across Australia, there would need to be sweeping systematic changes to the options courts use when presented with vulnerable people who have broken laws. Until those changes are won, however, the Australian public must know the harm prisons continue to inflict upon wom*n.