fighting the privatisation
of prisons, the imprisonment of women
and speaking out about
what happens in prisons
A hard copy of this kit is also available by contacting
us by email or
by writing to PO Box 1567, Collingwood, Victoria, Australia,
This kit was published in May 1996.
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Women and private
Part of the continuum of women's oppression
The greatest contribution all of us can make to the survival of women
who are and who have in prison is to become informed about who it is that
is sent to prison, what goes on in prison and then speak out loudly against
the myths and lies that surround prisons. The greatest prison wall is community
The privatisation of imprisonment
Prison is not an isolated institution, it is part of a continuum in
the control of women, whether by our lack of access to economic independence,
violence, racism or specific laws that target women such as prostitution
and social security. The society that condemns the behaviour of women it
imprisons, yet accepts the treatment prisoners are given inside is at best
hypocritical, but perhaps more correctly, sadistic. (Amanda George, 'Commemoration
of Women who have died in and after custody'. Paper presented at Melbourne
Town Hall, March 23 1993).
The women in Australian prisons are generally those who have suffered
the worse excesses of racism, patriarchy and capitalism and inside prison
the pain and punishment continues. Women inside are charged with twice
as many disciplinary offences as men (Women and Criminal Justice Vol 5
(2) 1994). Although women are in for shorter times and less serious offences,
relatively more women than men are in maximum security (Amanda George,
'Private Prisons : the Punished, the Profiteers and the Grand Prix of State
Approval' 8th Lionel Murphy Memorial Lecture, 21 October 1994).
10.3% are inside for murder and most of these women were convicted of killing
men who had subjected them to years of violence. About 80% of women inside
are there for drug and alcohol related offences. This is hardly surprising
as the vast majority, approximately 80% of women in prison, are survivors
of sexual, physical and other abuse; like many people these women have
made use of drugs to deal with their pain. Women are still being given
long sentences for social security fraud and in Victoria around 20% of
the women in prison are there for shoplifting or car theft, 40% are under
29 years of age, approximately 9% are Aboriginal and approximately 12%
are from a non English speaking background (Catherine Gow, 'Just Polemic
: Prisons for Profit in Victoria', Just Policy No 3, June 1995). Not only
are the women in prison punished, their children are also made to suffer
by the state. Around 70% of women in Australian prisons are mothers. Their
children, who are usually very young, have their parent taken away and
in turn can be imprisoned in 'state care'.
Once inside, women ensure a para-military type regime with a rigid timetable.
While men's suicide rate decreases in prison, women's suicide rate increases
more than three times. In a country where there is no death sentence 22
adult women have died in custody since 1980 (Royal Commission into Aboriginal
Deaths in Custody, 1988). Since 1990 in Victoria alone there has been at
least 57 known deaths of women within weeks of leaving prison (Women and
Imprisonment Group 4 / 1996). This fact speaks volumes about their experience
of prison. While in prison women are in a state of crisis. Over the period
1990-92 in Victorian prisons there were nearly 200 incidents of self-inflicted
injury among the women in custody. Suicide and self-inflicted injury are
but two indicators of the severe level of depression, powerlessness and
anxiety felt by the women inside.
It's also a daily reality for women in prison and police custody to
be assaulted. For every contact visit a woman must go into a room with
two officers, take off her clothes, hand them to the officers - not necessarily
female - stand naked, raise her arms, lift her breasts, open her mouth,
spread her legs, bend over, part her cheeks and remove a tampon if she
has one. This sexual assault is the price a woman must pay every time she
sees the people important to her.
In 1993 the government attempted to move women prisoners into K Division
(formerly known as Jika Jika), the maximum security sensory deprivation
unit located inside Pentridge men's Prison. The Save Fairlea Women's Prison
Coalition fought a successful twelve month campaign against this transfer.
However on December 15 1994 the government announced that Corrections Corporation
of Australia (CCA) had been awarded the contract to construct, manage and
own the first private women's prison in Australia which will be the first
private women's prison in the world outside of the United States!
At least 80% of Victoria's women prisoners are to be handed over to
the world's biggest multi-national private prison consortium. This means
that Victoria will have the largest percentage of women prisoners in entrepreneurial
private prisons in the world.
Why oppose privatisation?
The private women's prison is to be sited at Ravenhall, which was previously
Australian Defence Industries land, located at Deer Park. The site is inaccessible
and the land is believed to be heavily contaminated.
The head of a private detention centre in the United States, in an attempt
to reduce fears of arbitrary authority by private prison guards said "I
review every disciplinary action. I'm the Supreme Court" (J Chan in P Moyle,
Private Prisons and Police : Recent Australian Trends. Pluto Press, Australia).
Such a statement is real cause for concern. Every internal prison rule
has the potential to increase the sentence and numbers of people inside.
Thus the profiteers have a financial interest in the disciplinary decisions
they make.(George and Lazarus 1994 ibid.)
How can society accept that a woman who commits a breach of prison rules
- as minor as getting up late, being in possession of perfume, being unable
to urinate in front of an officer when requested - may result in her being
put in solitary for a week with only two hours outside? No cigarettes,
no TV, no visits.
How can we reconcile ourselves to the knowledge that a child can be
pulled out of bed at midnight by uniformed officers and placed into foster
care with strangers because there is a 'suspicion' that her mother - a
prisoner - has taken drugs? What impact is it having on these kids, who
so often think it is their fault that their mothers have been taken away;
their punishment? (J Griffin, 'Call my name', Program to Somebody's Daughter
Theatre Company production, 1994). How can we accept that a woman who cannot
urinate on demand loses contact visits with her children, her friends,
Removing a person's liberty is the most severe sanction available in
the criminal justice system. In any democratic system, how and why this
is done must be a matter for public concern and must be fully accountable
to elected bodies. The state cannot abdicate the responsibility and burden
of caring for people in prison to profit motivated corporations.
Under privatisation, the government still pays for the prison and its
operation. The obvious ways for private operators to increase profits are
to lobby for tougher laws and longer sentences and to reduce services,
programs and staff. The experience in other private prisons has been that
in order to minimise costs and maximise profits there are lower staff to
prisoner ratios and a heavy reliance on electronic security techniques
creating a "sensory deprivation environment" where prisoners are subjected
to constant electronic surveillance in an environment with little human
contact. The state Coalition government cares so little for the lives of
women prisoners that it is selling these women and their children to a
company whose primary motivation is to generate profit for its shareholders
and board of directors.
Further cause of concern is that the contracts with CCA are not subject
to Freedom of Information legislation nor open to scrutiny because of so
called 'commercial confidentiality'! This has severe implications for the
possibility of public scrutiny into conditions in private prisons.
State prisons in Australia have a horrific history. There continues
to be appalling numbers of Aboriginal deaths in custody, prisons have institutionalised
brutality and violence and an alarming number of women are dead within
a short time of leaving prisons (A George, 1993, ibid).
To not take seriously and protest the distribution of profits on the
stock markets generated from the infliction of pain and punishment through
imprisonment is to completely disregard our responsibility to the women
and men whom we are separated by only a wall. It also hides the fact that
prisoners are the laboratory rats for new technologies and techniques of
social control which ultimately will be used on us all.
The gravity of our responsibility is clear; "being inside gives you
an unerasable sense of alienation from mainstream society. The sense that
what you know is worlds apart from what most people know never leaves you.
Your eyes have been opened and you can never forget what you have seen"
(B Hampton, Prisons and Women, University of NSW Press, 1993)
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Loser Pays : Privatisation
of the Criminal Justice System
Politically and socially in Victoria we are being subsumed by the tyranny
of economic rationalism and the New Right agenda. Both promote the notions
of minimal government, non interference in "the market" and the expansion
of the private sector. Economic rationalism places economic considerations
above social responsibilities, social justice and human rights. Services
are retained or disposed of solely on the basis of their economic viability
(profit capacity). Additionally, "there is no need for government except
to maintain an army to repel invaders and a police force to stop some maximising
individual from knocking off your private property ... any government activity
beyond this limited role is said to amount to "intervention in the economy
- which is automatically regarded as a bad thing." (Brian Toohey, 'What
do the figures mean' in D Horne, The Trouble with Economic Rationalism,
Scribe, Australia, 1992, p 53).
The Victorian Coalition State government is pursuing this agenda by
selling off public utilities, privatising corrections and prisons and contracting
out services to private corporations while simultaneously increasing police
numbers and powers and introducing greater penal sentences for dissent
and poverty. They are publicly justifying this agenda on the grounds of
financial necessity and responsible management. The government is creating
an illusion of public debt and a bloated bureaucracy to "justify" its current
agenda of privatisation.
According to the OECD, public debt is measured as a proportion of total
state or national income (GDP...Gross Domestic Product). "On this basis
Victoria's current level of debt is 29%...Compared with other countries,
Victorian and Australian debt levels are very low; the current average
debt level for OECD countries is 58% of GDP. Comparisons with Australian
private sector corporate debt levels, even the most solid companies is
still more striking - BHP has debt levels of around 82% while Pacific Dunlop
has a staggering 222% (ibid).
Context of privatisation in Victoria
The expansion of the private sector into welfare, community services
and the criminal justice system, coupled with less government and no alternative
job creation nor expansion of services means that more insecurity, poverty
and unemployment are the logical outcomes of economic rationalism (Len
Cooper, 'Kennett's State of War' in Frontline, February 1993, p 1).
Privatisation is not just the selling of public utilities ie gas, electricity,
water, to private corporations; it is the commercialisation of services,
corporatisation, contracting out, user pays and competitive tendering.
It is argued by those attempting to justify privatisation that "if traditional
public services like education, health, transport, law and security are
provided by government or (preferably) the market at their real cost to
those who want to use them then they will be provided more efficiently
and less wastefully" (Mike Salvaris, 'Loser Pays' in Frontline, March 1993,
p 4). But economically efficient allocation of services is not the same
thing as socially efficient or fair allocation of services and resources.
In social terms, a system of full-cost public services will almost guarantee
that services go not to those who need or deserve them on grounds of fairness
but to those who can afford them. What is overlooked in the debate around
privatisation is why most public services were established in the first
place; because private enterprise couldn't or wouldn't provide these essential
services fairly and adequately to all people at a price they could afford.
Efficiency of public services and utilities is not simply about maximising
profits and minimising costs. An efficient public service / utility is
one which effectively achieves various public goals; that citizens receive
the service regardless of income, education or location, that it contributes
to the broader social and economic infrastructure, contributing to full
employment, protecting the environment, maintaining good business ethics
and being socially accountable.
Since the Coalition Government came to power in Victoria late in 1992
we have experienced massive changes within the criminal justice and correctional
fields. Prisoner transport has been privatised and contracted to Corrections
Corporation of Australia. The cells under the new Magistrates Court have
been privatised as has the security at St Augustine Security Ward in St
Vincent's Hospital. The Government is exploring the privatisation of police
cells and is embarking on a plan to privatise three prisons in Victoria.
The first private prison is to be a 125 - 200 bed women's private prison
to replace Fairlea Women's Prison and to be located in Deer Park. It is
to be run by Corrections Corporation of Australia, financed by Societe
Generale Australia and constructed by John Holland construction. This will
be the first private women's prison in the world outside of the United
States. Pentridge men's prison will also be closed and replaced by a remand
and maximum security private men's prison in Sale and a private men's multifunctional
and remand prison in Laverton North. Victoria will then have the highest
percentage of prisoners in private prisons in the world bringing Australia's
private prison population to 40% of those imprisoned.
There are serious moral and legal implications of giving over the state's
exclusive powers to coerce, to hold people against their will and to administer
punishment to commercial profit-motivated corporations. "Over centuries,
citizens ... have given governments the exclusive power to do particular,
highly important and often difficult things on the understanding that they
use these powers for the communal good. Examples of these special powers
include the power to raise and maintain an army, the exclusive power to
print money and a legal monopoly over the use of force. If and when this
(person) is subsequently charged, tried, convicted and imprisoned, the
state (acting on our behalf) is exercising it's legal monopoly over the
use of force. By definition, imprisonment deprives a person of his or liberty
- it is an act of force" (John Ernst, Why we should say no! to private
prisons' speech to Deer Park Public Forum on the Ravenhall private prison
proposal, Deer Park, 14 June 1994).
Problems with privatising corrections
Experiences both here in Australia and overseas have shown that private
prisons result in greater financial and social costs and it must be remembered
that it is still the government that pays the company to run the prison.
Additionally, Freedom of Information laws have allowed access to some information
about prisons although these rights have been restricted. With the advent
of privatisation, "commercial confidentiality" is being used to avoid public
disclosure of information related to the planned private prisons such as
the contract specifications, possible land contamination, workers conditions
and service provision. Threats of defamation by the companies involved
has had the effect of silencing debate around private prisons. Possible
cross media ownership could also advantage the companies (Shelley Burchfield,
Women, prison and privatisation, paper presented at the Annual conference
of the Victorian Commercial Teachers Association 1994, Coburg Brunswick
The Victorian Government is proceeding with this sweeping privatisation
without any thorough evaluation of the performance of private prisons elsewhere
and without conducting an open enquiry to which those with direct experience
could freely submit. This is a dangerous experiment; private prisons have
failed in the past. We need to improve our prison policies in Victoria
but introducing profit will do nothing but compound the entrenched problems
with our current prison system.
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Unions, workers and the
privatisation of prisons
The current Victorian Coalition Government's rush to privatise three
prisons in Victoria raises many issues for workers and unionists. Prison
privatisation plans are not just about the government attempting to avoid
its responsibility for the care and rehabilitation of prisoners. Prison
privatisation has also been used to smash unions, stifle community debate
and undermine workers' conditions and wages.
Working conditions in Australian Private Prisons
Currently in Australia there are four private prisons, Junee in NSW
and the Arthur Gorrie Correctional Centre in Queensland are both run by
Australasian Correctional Management (ACM). Borallon in Queensland is run
by Corrections Corporation of Australia (CCA) and Mt Gambier in South Australia
is operated by Group 4.
The experiences of workers in private prisons in Australia highlight
a lack of award conditions, non unionisation as a clear management strategy
and poor and at times outrageously low staffing levels for both prison
officers and support staff ie welfare officers, psychologists (C Allison,
Informers arrival linked to jail riot, Sydney Morning Herald, 29/11/94).
Low staffing levels and insufficient training has been blamed for the high
levels of violence and deaths within private prisons (N Hester, The hard
cell in Snoop : a magazine of investigative journalism, Issue 2,
Spring 1994, NSW). In addition to the reduction of workers conditions,
concerns have been raised as to the effect on workers who are employed
within a high technology, sensory deprivation environment. We know what
this does to prisoners. Workers would presumably suffer similar psychological
and physical repercussions.
Health and safety of workers in private prisons
Junee has had a controversial history. "Three months after it was opened
tear gas was used to quell a riot by more than 100 prisoners after complaints
about wet laundry, lack of food and work opportunities. Two months later
a prisoner ... was found dead in his cell" (D Belton, Industrial issues
of private prisons : a union's perspective in Moyle Private prisons and
police : Recent Australian trends, Pluto Press, Australia, 1994). In November
1994 it took prison management four hours using tear gas to quell a riot
at Junee. All this during its first eighteen months of operation! There
has also been a 30% staff turnover at Junee (Hester, 1994, op cit). Former
employees of Junee believe that the under staffing has led to the disproportionate
number of incidents for a low-medium security prison. "There were only
140 officers where there should be 210 for the number of inmates. They
were recruiting people from the Army and Air Force at first. Now they are
employing people off the street (S Burchfield, Letter to McNamara, Coburg
Brunswick Community Legal and Financial Counselling Centre, Melbourne).
The POAA (Prison Officer's Association of Australia) is "concerned that
any lowering of standards of care and provision of services has the potential
to prejudice the safety and welfare of officers employed in those institutions
(P Moyle, Private prison research in Queensland, Australia in Moyle 1994
op cit). It is alleged that the low staffing is connected to the number
of incidents in the prison. There have been two deaths in custody, a murder
and another death yet to be determined and a high number of assaults on
both officers and inmates (Prison Report : The Prison reform trust magazine,
Issue No 22, Spring, Britain). The 1994/95 Ombudsman's Report documented
that Junee had the highest number of complaints of any prison in NSW. (The
Times, London 16/6/94)
International Experience of Private Prisons
Private management of the Arthur Gorrie Correctional Centre in Queensland
has been under attack from union, staff and prisoner groups. It has had
eight prisoner deaths since opening in June 1992. The Prisoner Legal Service
in Queensland allege that the death rate which is higher than that of other
remand and reception prisons is related to the private management of the
prison (The Guardian, London, 8/9/94).
Borallon has come under attack from workers who believe that staff levels
are not adequate to enable them to work effectively. Many workers also
felt there was no effective method to deal with their concerns. The use
of casual labour raised the possibility that anyone who threatened industrial
action over safety matters could be easily dismissed (Independent on Sunday,
Steve Quinn, a 20 year old veteran of the New Zealand prison service
visited Borallon in 1993 and reported that he found the private prison
officers "nothing more really than security guards or turnkeys ... They
were all at stations, in their little glass cubicles ... They may as well
have been standing outside Woolworths and in fact that's where many of
them came from ..." (ibid).
Group 4, one of the consortiums which own the tender for Laverton North
Men's prison runs Wolds private prison in Britain. According to 'The Times'
the "Home Office did not expect to make savings ... but the main object
was to inject competition and new ideas and to undermine the power of the
Prison Officers' Association" (Independent on Sunday, London, 27/7/94).
Wackenhut has been awarded the contract for the (Sale) Fulham Private
Men's Prison. Wackenhut manages the Doncaster prison in England, its weekly
cost of 295 pounds per prisoner is 25% lower than a comparable publicly
run prison. It has 340, mostly inexperienced staff to run the jail of up
to 770 inmates. There have been serious issues since the prison opened,
mainly associated with staffing levels, recruitment and training (ibid).
Doncaster's managers (Wackenhut) have deliberately avoided hiring experienced
prison officers, nearly all of them members of the Prison Officers Association
and have recruited instead non-union people. (C Gow, 'Just Polemic : Prisons
for Profit in Victoria', Just Policy No 3, June 1995). In addition, the
contract with Wackenhut shows that the Home Office is willing to "tolerate
a high level of violence. Penalty clauses which would reduce the managers'
fees will not be operated until there have been more than 77 assaults on
staff and 148 assaults on prisoners ..." (People's Justice Alliance, Frontline,
February / March 1996). Because the Victorian government will not release
the contract specifications and details to the public because of so-called
'commercial confidentiality' perhaps this clause is included in Victorian
Wackenhut, besides being involved in private prisons also provides private
security services in the US including strike-breaking. "Their business
in life is to attack trade unions. They bring in armed guards to make it
easier for strike-breakers to go to work". In 1992 the company was criticised
strongly by a US congress report into their covert surveillance of an environmentalist
who was a conduit for leaks about the activities of oil multinationals
in Alaska. (ibid)
Corrections Corporation of Australia has been awarded the contract
for the private women's prison in Victoria. CCA was also awarded the contract
for court security and prisoner transport in Victoria. Since then it's
employees have twice failed their firearms accreditation tests (ibid).
Tom Beasley, CCA's Chief Executive Officer stated that the role of private
companies in running prisons is just like 'selling cars or real estate
or hamburgers'. (A George and S Lazurus, 1994, op cit) CCA's only experience
in managing private women's prisons is in the US. At their New Mexico prison,
women inmates allege their educational and health services are substandard
compared with state prisons.
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Koories and Private
Prisons : A New Colonialism
The introduction of private prisons represents a 'new colonialism'
for Victoria's indigenous people. Power over prisoners will be transferred
from the present colonial state government to a profit-driven multi-national
company. This represents another assault on Aboriginal people who have
experienced a long history of oppressive government policies which have
been referred to as cultural genocide.
As Coe states,
Over two centuries of colonisation, Aboriginal people have had every facet
of their lives controlled and regulated by government policy. Broadly these
policies can be described as : invasion, protection, assimilation and self-determination.
Invasion was characterised by extreme violence and war. Koories were dispossessed
of their land and food sources, were massacred, shot, killed through introduced
diseases and poisoned flour and women were raped and killed. Koories responded
to this violence through the waging of guerilla warfare (M Christie, 1979,
Aborigines in Colonial Victoria, 1835-86, Sydney University Press). The
extreme violence of the invasion period is shown by the rapid decline of
the Victorian Koorie population from perhaps 15,000 in 1834 to 2,000 in
1850, possibly a decline of over 80% (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
Commission, 1990, Aboriginal People of Victoria, AGPS)
The reason for emphasising the genocide which has been committed
against Aboriginal people is to reinforce the point that the present relationships
between Aboriginal people and the legal system with the police as agents
can only be understood in the light of two centuries of oppression of Aboriginal
people. (P Coe, 1980, 'Aboriginals and the Criminal Law in New South
Wales', Proceedings of the Institute of Criminology, Aboriginals and the
Criminal Law, p 14).
As it was thought Koories would die out, a policy of 'protection' was
introduced. 'Protective' legislation was passed in the 1880s. Koories were
forced from their lands; herded onto missions and reserves; and controlled
by white managers who had unlimited power over their daily lives (Pat Swan,
1988, Aboriginal Medical Service, Redfern, RCADC Interim Report, AGPS.
It was also specifically designed to break up families, with "half castes"
under 34 years forcibly removed from the reserves to be 'absorbed' into
white society (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, 1990,
Aboriginal People of Victoria, AGPS). Christie suggests that methods used
by the Board for the Protection of Aborigines (BPA) resembled the system
of apartheid which was later developed in South Africa (M Christie, 1979,
Aborigines in Colonial Victoria, 1835-86, Sydney University Press, p 199).
Assimilationist policy and legislation appeared in the 1950s. Assimilation
sought the disappearance of Koories as a race. "The aim was to create a
homogenous Australian society where all Aborigines were to think and act
as whites. Thousands of Koorie children were illegally placed in institutions
or fostered or adopted to whites ..." Underaged Koorie women were coerced
by welfare into adopting their children out, "holiday schemes" operated
where children were placed in non-Aboriginal families and never returned
to their families, Koorie children were simply snatched or taken from their
families and unofficial adoption services operated from hospitals (Phillip
Institute of Technology, Pay the Rent Group, 1991, National Aboriginal
and Islander Children's Day Magazine, Phillip Institute Student Union,
Melbourne, p 26). The Secretariat of the National Aboriginal and Islander
Child Care states that the period from assimilation to the late 1970s was
a major period of removal of Koorie children. The peak of these removal
activities is believed to be around 1972 (Secretariat of the National Aboriginal
and Islander Child Care (SNAICC), 1993, Took the Children Away, Removal
of Children : Research Feasibility Study, Submission to Health and Community
Services for funding for research project, Unpublished, Melbourne, p 3).
In 1972 a policy of self-determination was introduced by the Whitlam
government. The Whitlam era saw the introduction of land rights legislation
and funding for Aboriginal organisations such as legal, health and housing
services. More recently in 1988, the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths
in Custody (RCADC) found massive over-representation of Koories in the
criminal justice system and that Koories were extremely disadvantaged in
areas of health, housing, welfare, employment and education. It also found
that over half of those who died in custody were moved from their parents
care as children (RCADC, 1991, National Report, AGPS, Canberra).
The criminal justice system has been a key institution in implementing
these policies. The police and courts have played a major role in the removal
of children, the enforcement of discriminatory laws and in controlling
the daily lives of Aboriginal people. The criminal justice system remains
a cornerstone in continuing cultural genocide. This is evidenced by the
RCADC report and the massive over-representation of Koories in the criminal
justice system. Cunneen argues that the removal of children through the
criminal justice system has not stopped either. He argues that whilst earlier
policies explicitly justified the removal of children on the basis that
they were Aboriginal, today children are removed on the basis they are
criminal (For further discussion of this see C Cunneen 1994 "Enforcing
genocide? : Aboriginal young people and the police" in The Police and Young
People in Australia, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne).
Private prisons are a return to the segregation and control of Koories
by white managers who have unlimited power over their daily lives. Furthermore
these white managers are a multi-national company whose primary aim is
greater incarceration for greater profit.
The Situation Today
The impact on Aboriginal social, cultural and economic life of such
policies has been devastating. This is evidenced today in the over-representation
of Koories in the current public prison system which is a national disgrace.
In Victoria, Koories are almost nine times more likely to be imprisoned
than non-Koories (RCADC, Interim Report, 1988, AGPS, p 99). For Aboriginal
women, the picture is even worse. In 1989, nationally, Aboriginal women
represented 16.3% of the female prison population compared with Aboriginal
men being 14.1% of the male prison population (S Payne, 1992, "Aboriginal
Women and the Law" in C Cunneen, Aboriginal Perspectives on Criminal Justice,
Institute of Criminology, Sydney, p 32).
Koorie women and private prisons
The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (RCADC) found
that it is this over-representation which gives rise to the unacceptable
rates of Koorie deaths in custody (RCADC, 1991, National Report, AGPS,
Canberra). In fact, Koories are one of the most incarcerated groups in
the world (B Swanton, 1984, Aborigines and Criminal Justice, Proceedings
- Training Project No 27/1/5: Australian Institute of Criminology, Sydney,
p 32). As Cunneen has documented, the over-policing of Koorie communities
and racist policing practices (C Cunneen, 1994, "Enforcing Genocide? Aboriginal
Young People and the Police" in The Police and Young People in Australia.
Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, p 154) are central causes of this
Koories are overwhelmingly apprehended for minor public order offences.
This results in Koories gaining an extensive police record which impacts
negatively on their future sentencing outcomes and the likelihood of a
prison sentence. The RCADC revealed that 67 per cent of Koories who died
in police custody were incarcerated for minor alcohol-related offences
(RCADC, 1988, Interim Report, p 25). In Victoria, 19% of charges laid against
Koories between 1990 and 1992 were for public drunkenness (S James &
R Allas, 1994, Policing and Koorie Offending in Victoria. Paper presented
at the ANZ Society of Criminology Conference, Sydney University). Decriminalisation
of public drunkenness is a key recommendation of the RCADC. This is particularly
significant as Victoria failed to decriminalise and is one of the only
two states in Australia where public drunkenness remains a criminal offence.
This is disturbing in light of the planned privatisation of police cells.
The RCADC stressed that contemporary Aboriginal disadvantage in health,
housing, education and employment combined with the legacy of destructive
government policies means that Koories are particularly vulnerable in prison
(RCADC, 1991, Overview and Recommendations, p 6). In order to address these
concerns the RCADC recommended that imprisonment be used as a last resort
and that self-determination be the guiding principle in prison reform with
the Koorie community having a significant input into the management of
Koorie prisoners and programs and community based alternatives to prison.
In Victoria, two programs currently operating in the North West district
as alternatives to imprisonment are the Koorie Justice project in Swan
Hill and Warakoo Station near Mildura. The Koori Justice Project is a local
initiative which enables Koorie offenders sentenced to a Community Based
Order to do their community work with an Aboriginal sites or cultural officer.
Warakoo station is a Koorie owned and managed station where some Koories
who would otherwise serve their time in prison can serve their sentence.
The programs are a realisation of self-determination.
Koorie women have experienced the worst excesses of government policy
and practice. They have borne the brunt of both a racist and sexist society
and thus are doubly disadvantaged. Koorie women have suffered the removal
of their children, the devaluing of their cultural knowledge by anthropologists,
the silencing and ignorance of their concerns and sexist and racist violence.
In the criminal justice system, nationally, they fare worse than both white
women and Aboriginal men. In fact they make up 50% of all women taken into
police custody. The RCADC investigated the deaths of 11 Aboriginal women
in custody. Common threads running through the lives of these women were
child welfare and intervention and subsequent dislocation from family and
culture, abuse of alcohol as a way to cope with this, poverty, imprisonment
and health problems. The women were arrested for public drunkenness, fine
default and public order offences.
"For Aboriginal women particularly one of the most disempowering acts
of all was the 'assimilation' policy which saw Aboriginal babies taken
from their mothers. The devastating effects of this institutionalisation
and forced adoption of Aboriginal infants and children are still and will
continue to be a major factor in Aboriginal over-imprisonment for both
sexes for a long time to come (S Payne, 1992, 'Aboriginal Women and
the Law' in C Cunneen (ed) Aboriginal Perspectives on Criminal Justice,
Institute of Criminology, Sydney, p 32).
Whilst Koorie women, like Koorie men, experience over-policing, that
is, high levels of police targeting, in the public arena. When Koorie women
are subjected to violence in the private arena, they often experience underpolicing
- that is, their needs are ignored. Judy Atkinson quotes an Aboriginal
woman from Cape York : "If a white woman gets bashed or raped here, the
police do something. When it's us they laugh. The fellow keeps working
around, everybody knows but nothing is done (J Atkinson, 1990, 'Violence
Against Aboriginal Women : Reconstitution of Community Law - the Way Forward"
in Aboriginal Law Bulletin, p 6). This ignorance is replicated in the prison
"Koorie women in custody have special needs, in that they are a small
minority group, within a small minority group ... Like white women in custody,
the main concern of Koorie women while in custody is their ability to receive
visits and maintain contact with their children and family. However, Koorie
women are usually extremely isolated due to the geographic spread of their
family. As a result, their children are frequently placed in foster care
with a non-Koorie family" (C Barry, 1988, 'Programs for Koorie prisoners
: past, present and future' in D Biles (ed), Current Australian Trends
in Corrections, The Federation Press, Sydney, p 35).
Privatisation - adding profit to the picture
The privatisation of prisons makes a mockery of self-determination.
The shift in control of prisons from public to private hands intrinsically
shuts the public out of any policy-making role. This is especially crucial
for Koories as the right of indigenous people to self-determination as
recognised in International Law (Covenant on Civil and Political Rights;
and Economic, Social and Cultural Rights) will be taken away; a right which
has only recently been won by Koories in Australia (In 1972 when the Whitlam
government came to power, the government policy in relation to Aboriginal
affairs was officially changed from assimilation to 'self-determination').
The prospects for Koorie prisoners already vulnerable in the current system
can only worsen as rights will become privileges that can be withdrawn
at the whim of private prison operators.
The experience of prison privatisation in Victoria so far shows little
respect for the interests of the Koorie community. Statewide Koorie organisations
have not been involved in any consultations regarding private prisons.
Further, there has been no guarantee that the RCADC recommendations will
be implemented. Commercial confidentiality denies the Koorie community
access to the contract between the state government and the private prison
operators regarding the provision and design of services to Koorie prisoners.
The experience interstate also gives no cause to repeat privatisation here.
Two out of the eight prisoners who have died in Arthur Gorrie private prison
in Queensland were Aboriginal. Of the fourteen people who have died in
private prisons between 1992 - 1996, four have been Koori prisoners.
In a private prison maximising profit is the ultimate objective. Prisoners
lives become private property rather than public responsibility. The right
of Koorie prisoners to access culturally relevant services may well be
sacrificed since there is no compulsion for companies to provide Koorie
programs. There is no guarantee that existing Koorie services will be retained
in a private prison. The welfare of Aboriginal prisoners which currently
does not lie in Koorie hands will be further removed through privatisation.
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Institutions are removed from societal gaze and prisons are surrounded
by not only a concrete wall but by a 'wall of silence'. Prison privatisation
plans will further remove access to public scrutiny, debate and questioning.
A similar silencing occurs around indigenous human rights abuses. Amnesty
International and the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission have
conducted recent research into the vulnerability of Koorie people to abuse
of human rights in the criminal justice system (Amnesty International,
1993, Aboriginal People and the Criminal Justice System in Australia; Human
Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, 1991, Racist Violence). Privatisation
means a double veil of silence for Koorie prisoners particularly in light
of the findings of the RCADC. The difficulties experienced by families
accessing information about prisoner deaths in custody may be increased.
Private operators have a financial stake in continuing and even increasing
rates of imprisonment and over-representation of Koories as they often
are paid on a per prisoner per day basis. Companies also form a very powerful
law and order lobby group on justice issues.
Women from non-English
speaking backgrounds in prison
Imprisonment is an isolating, dislocating and frightening experience
for any prisoner. For those from non-English speaking backgrounds (NESB)
these experiences can be intensified. Many prisoners from non-English speaking
backgrounds have to contend with a racist culture both within and outside
the prison as well as the active discrimination from courts, police and
correctional institutions. Despite the prohibition of discrimination on
the grounds of 'race, colour, gender, marital status, physical disability,
religion, political affiliation or national origin' in Office of Corrections
operational principles, NESB prisoners frequently experience discrimination
whilst in prison. This discrimination takes the form of a lack of specific
services for NESB prisoners, the inability of NESB prisoners to access
the services available to other prisoners and the often racist and ignorant
attitudes that inform both Office of Correction policy and the practices
of many prison staff. As a result, NESB prisoners can serve lonelier and
more difficult sentences than Anglo prisoners.
Women prisoners from non-English speaking backgrounds
This article will only bring up some very general issues regarding
NESB prisoners and will focus specifically on NESB women prisoners. The
term NESB covers an extremely diverse group of people. Within the context
of the prison, NESB people often share many experiences of discrimination
and isolation. However the people are divided by cultural background, gender,
sexuality, proficiency in English, education, class and age.
In Victoria NESB women prisoners make up approximately 17% of the female
prison population. This 17% includes both Australian residents and those
who are to be deported at the end of their sentences (Patricia Weiser Easteal,
The Forgotten Few : Overseas-born women in Australian prisons, Commonwealth
of Australia, 1992, p 35). NESB women are generally over-represented amongst
those prisoners who are on remand and underepresented amongst those serving
sentences. This over-representation of NESB women on remand is often caused
by discrimination from police and the courts as well as NESB women's lack
of familiarity with the legal process and their rights (NESB Prisons Reform
Taskforce, 'NESB Prisoners - An Agenda for Change' p 3).
Life inside for NESB women
Some women have served up to eighteen months on remand and have then
been found innocent. There have been several cases where women who are
not Australian residents have stayed in prison for long periods of time
on remand, been found innocent and then deported without compensation.
NESB women's experiences of privatisation are often of extreme isolation
and deprivation. Many NESB women have complained of racist harassment from
both staff and prisoners. This racism takes many forms from verbal harassment
and ostracism to threatened and actual physical violence. Many NESB women's
religious and cultural practices are ignored or sometimes even banned in
prison. In a New South Wales prison Muslim women were banned from wearing
the hadjib (head gear) as it was said to pose a "security risk" (Jennifer
Welstead, 'Some findings regarding NESB access to services for those affected
by the criminal justice system', CRC Justice Support, p 11). NESB women
have faced extreme difficulties when attempting to observe fast days and
prayer requirements (Easteal, op cit, p 93). NESB women frequently complain
of being unable to obtain food that they want to eat or require for their
Possible implications of private prisons
Many NESB women have trouble communicating in English and therefore
experience isolation and frustration. Every woman who goes to prison must
learn a whole new system of terms, rules and regulations. Obviously, for
women who speak little or no English learning this system can be extremely
difficult if not impossible. Prison culture and language is based on Anglo
Australian cultural norms and vernacular and thus makes little sense to
those not familiar with this dominant culture. Traditionally correctional
policy, or lack thereof, concerning the specific language needs of many
NESB women prisoners has been based on racist assumptions and extreme ignorance.
Until recently it was common for officers to be told that repeating themselves
loudly and slowly was a solution to misunderstandings that commonly occurred
when giving NESB women instructions (Anna Schinella, Isolated Inside :
Women on non-English speaking backgrounds in prisons, p 7).
Correctional institutions have made some provisions for non-English
speakers in the past five years such as the use of the Telephone Interpreting
Service, written translations of some prison procedures and regulations
and training programs for officers. However these provisions have been
tokenistic, poorly administered and rarely utilised. Relatively new equipment
for three way telephone conversations between interpreters, prisoners and
staff in NSW prisons are rarely used. Similarly in Victoria the Telephone
Interpreter Service is infrequently used by prison officers at Fairlea.
This infrequent use of interpreter services is not due to a lack of need.
NESB women prisoners do not have the right to utilise an interpreter
when they feel they need one. It is up to the individual prison officer
to decide whether a woman needs an interpreter or not. In practice prison
officers rarely decide to use an interpreter. It is often assumed that
if women speak English well enough to hold a conversation they do not need
an interpreter. This is often not the case. When some NESB women experience
conflict, pressure and anxiety their English skills can deteriorate. Thus
NESB women are often at an extreme disadvantage especially in situations
such as parole hearings where it is necessary for women to argue their
case. Until NESB women have the right to demand an interpreter when they
think it is necessary this situation is unlikely to improve.
Prison staff often rely on English speaking inmates to interpret for
NESB women or to inform NESB women of frequent rule changes and general
instructions. This leads to frequent and often dangerous misunderstandings.
Misunderstandings can be very serious in situations where work safety requirements
needs to be understood or when a non English speaking woman needs to communicate
with a doctor or psychologist. While English speaking and Anglo prisoners
do take care of some NESB women other NESB women are left out. If a woman
is not catered for in this informal and lackadaisical system, prison staff
often blame the individual woman for being "anti-social". When NESB women
are ostracised and disliked by English speaking prisoners it is often due
to racism on the part of other prisoners rather than a fault of the individual
woman. What ever the reason it should be the responsibility of correctional
institutions to provide effective services which enable NESB women to communicate.
Many non-English speaking women rarely have the opportunity to speak
to anyone else. Everyday conversation with other inmates is difficult if
not impossible. Non-English speaking women who don't have visitors can
go for months without speaking to anyone. This situation frequently occurs
with deportees as their family and friends are overseas and phone calls
are expensive and difficult to make.
Thus many non-English speaking women effectively serve their sentence
in solitary confinement. This environment of deprivation, isolation and
intense loneliness often contributes to serious mental health problems.
The privatisation of prisons in Victoria is likely to further disadvantage
NESB women. Under the public prison system, service provision for NESB
women has been frequently cut back in cost cutting exercises. Under a private
prison system where the profit imperative is paramount, minority services
are likely to be further cut or completely abolished. The isolated sites
chosen for private prisons in Victoria will also disadvantage NESB women.
In 1992 the NSW Prisons Task Force found that isolated prison locations
provided a particular barrier to NESB people wanting to visit prisoners.
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This page last updated 7 July 1997
Copyright People's Justice Alliance.
Copyright People's Justice Alliance 1997.
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