Women are criminalised for harming their own bodies through drugs, not for hurting others. They are also criminalised for minor property offences. Only a tiny fraction has seriously hurt another person. In the few cases where a woman has hurt someone, it was usually her violent partner.
Women spend, on average, less than a month in prison. Yet this short time can destroy a woman’s life. I have met many women who lost their children after a few weeks in prison. A too-common story is of a woman who has got her life on track – she is clean from drugs, has escaped family violence, begun work. She is imprisoned for past drug use, or a petty crime like shoplifting. So she can’t show up to work. She loses her job, so can’t pay rent. The state will not return her children because she is now homeless. Re-traumatised, she returns to drugs. Her children grow up in state care and are abused like she was.
Our prison system is the definition of insanity: we do something over and over, knowing it has never worked. So why do we keep doing it? Why do we needlessly destroy lives?
There are companies profiting hugely from prisons. In Australia, we have the highest rate of private incarceration in the world. Multibillion dollar companies, such as Serco, GEO group and G4S, are making skyrocketing profits. Other multinationals use cheap prison labour. Women in prison are packaging headsets for Qantas, sewing Australian flags, making bed linen. They are paid between 80¢ and $3 per hour for this work. The Australian minimum wage is $18.93 per hour.
The Andrews government has committed to social justice values, and has demonstrated this commitment through the Royal Commission into Family Violence, and current Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System. But these important reforms are being undermined by the government’s draconian bail laws, which have drastically driven up the number of women held in prison for minor offences.
The Andrews government enacted new, restrictive bail laws supposedly as a response to the violence of men like Adrian Bayley and James Gargasoulas. But, as the Law Institute of Victoria and other experts have noted, there is no evidence that these bail laws will protect the community. Instead, they have driven a 75 per cent increase in the number of women in prison. Women have again been punished for male violence.
The Andrews government can reverse this crisis of women’s imprisonment. The first step is to scrap the ineffective, harmful bail laws. Systemic reforms are also necessary. Britain’s recent Female Offender Strategy may offer a way forward. The strategy says that women should not be imprisoned for non-violent offences. Instead, they should have meaningful support to address their core unmet needs: such as housing, access to training and employment and support for trauma and addiction.
This is not rocket science. The Andrews government has chosen to spend billions on prisons, and a tiny fraction on social services and housing. In countries like the Netherlands, where the major investment was on housing and social support, homelessness has been virtually eliminated and prisons have closed.
In the next five years, government projections show that thousands of women and children will be imprisoned for minor offences. We will spend billions on new prisons to put them in. Nobody will benefit except the multinationals reaping profits.
The Andrews government can act now to change this trajectory. We can keep families together. We can help women heal from violence.
It’s time to put women’s lives first.
Melanie Poole is a consultant who was previously policy, strategy and engagement director at the Federation of Community Legal Centres, and adviser to Just Leadership USA, an organisation run by former prisoners.