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Unfinished business: telling the story of Abo. . .

Unfinished business: telling the story of Aboriginal women in Victorian prisons

Published on the VCOSS Voice on 23 August 2013.

“I have been in prison six times. I have four children in DHS care and I’m currently eight months pregnant. I am in prison on remand. I returned to prison for theft and breach of parole….A lot of girls are in here because of breach of parole. We have no stable housing and no family…I have my mum but since I lost my kids things have got a lot worse. I feel like there is no use without them and I keep on using drugs….” Joanne.

The Victorian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission this week released a new report: Unfinished business: Koori women and the justice system. Acting Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commissioner Chris Humphreys details its main findings below.


The number of Aboriginal women in Victorian prisons is low, but they now make up the fastest growing segment of our prison population. They also share a similar profile.

They are generally young and 80 per cent have children. Many have grown up experiencing family violence, sexual abuse and intergenerational trauma. A significant number were removed from their families as children and placed in out-of-home care. Over 90 per cent have a history of mental illness – including anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder – and drug and alcohol dependence are widespread.

Discrimination is a daily reality for them, across nearly every part of their lives. This is also reflected in their contact with the justice system, where Koories are significantly more likely to come into contact with police than non-Koori men and women.

As a commitment under the Aboriginal Justice Agreement 3, the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission undertook research to document Koori women’s experiences of the justice system, particularly their experiences of custody, to provide evidence to support the implementation of diversionary programs for Koori women.

Our research heard directly from women like Joanne who were either in prison or had been, as well as from those that work with Koori women in the justice system, including Victoria Police, Magistrates, prison officers, community organisations and government departments.

Perhaps the most disturbing of our findings is that their first interaction with the Justice system is usually not the police that charge them but much earlier when, as children, they enter child protection or are victims of assault and abuse.

It is this threat of disadvantage being repeated across generations that is one of the most compelling reasons to do something to break the cycle while we can.

And, in fact, there are a number of clear opportunities for intervention that are being missed or need to be created.

At the front end, the role of the police is very important in diverting women away from prison where possible – it is the police who effectively recommend offenders to the Court for the Criminal Justice Diversion Program, but it is an under-utilised option.

Section 3A of the Bail Act 1997, which requires decision-makers to consider Aboriginality, is also under-utilised. This is a significant lost opportunity to address the escalating numbers of Koori women on remand.

Effective diversion also requires a safe place to live, pre- (and post) sentence; while there are some residential options available for men completing Community Corrections Orders, there are none for women. Some Koori women are refused bail because there is a chronic under-supply of safe accommodation that they can be bailed to.

Once they are in prison, Koori women appear not to be using programs on offer, largely because there is a lack of culturally appropriate services for them. Those that are available are infrequently run, have eligibility restrictions, such as not being open to women on remand, or have waiting lists which don’t work for those on short sentences.

Upon release from prison, services are fragmented, under-resourced, hard to navigate and, in some cases, limited in the support they can offer Koori women, again due to restrictions on eligibility for those on remand. There are no culturally and gender appropriate support services specifically for Koori women once they are released from prison and the rigidity of bail requirements impacts on their prospects for rehabilitation.

Repeated imprisonment can fundamentally disrupt the relationship between Koori women and their children. It places these children at a much greater likelihood of contact with the child protection system, which in turn is a major risk factor in putting the next generation of Koori young people on a pathway to prison. It’s time to act now, before these numbers get worse.

See our report for 29 recommendations to:

  •       address the over-representation of Koori women across the criminal justice system
  •       establish a culturally and gender appropriate model of diversion
  •       invest further in transitional housing for women on bail and post release
  •       improve access to treatment and services in prison for Koori women on remand and short sentences
  •       increase the availability and cultural competency of post release services.

This is an edited version of an article written by Chris Humphreys for the online version of Insight: crime and justice, which will soon be available at the VCOSS website.