In Western Australia, Aboriginal women go to prison for unpaid fines

What’s it called when a force seizes women of color and holds them hostage until they, or someone else, pays for their release? Kidnapping? Trafficking? Slavery? In Western Australia, as elsewhere, it’s called criminal justice, and it targets Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women. Debbie Kilroy, Executive Director of Sisters Inside, decided that enough was already way too much, and so this past Saturday she organized a GoFundMe campaign to bail out one hundred single Aboriginal mothers. While the effort is terrific, why are women, and particularly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women still being held hostage by the State?

Here’s Debbie Kilroy’s plea: “Western Australia’s response to poverty and homelessness is imprisonment. Western Australia refuses to change the laws where people who have no criminal convictions are imprisoned if they do not have the capacity to pay a fine.  People are languishing in prison for not being able to pay their fines.  Single Aboriginal mothers make up the majority of those in prison who do not have the capacity to pay fines. They are living in absolute poverty and cannot afford food and shelter for their children let alone pay a fine. They will never have the financial capacity to pay a fine.  So we want to raise $99,000.00 to have at least 100 single Aboriginal mothers freed from prison and have warrants vacated.  If you can financially assist this movement it would be greatly appreciated.  The funds will only be used to release people from prison.”

In August 2014, a 22-year-old Aboriginal woman, called Ms. Dhu, died in custody in Western Australia. She was being held for unpaid parking fines. Ms. Dhu complained, some say screamed and begged, of intense pains. She was sent to hospital twice and returned, untreated, to the jail. On her third trip to the hospital, she died, in the emergency room, within 20 minutes. It is reported that she never saw a doctor. Her grandmother says she “had broken ribs, bleeding on the lungs and was in excruciating pain.”Ms. Dhu was murdered by State systems of accounting. She was in jail for $3,622 in unpaid fines. The jail staff and the hospital staff decided she wasn’t worth believing or treating. She wasn’t worth the bother, and so Ms. Dhu died and remains dead. No amount of accounting will bring her justice. Her family and community are left to struggle with the State systems of accounting that value their lives as beneath assessment. What does justice for Ms. Dhu mean today?

Ms. Dhu’s case has become the standard by which we mark the incarceration of Indigenous women in Australia, but that doesn’t mean things have improved. A year ago, Human Rights Watch reported“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in prison are the fastest growing prison population, and 21 times more likely to be incarcerated than non-indigenous peers.” While the report was perfectly accurate, it was also perfectly redundant, given that it reiterated issues came up in major reports published in  2010201120122013201420152016, and 2017. Last month, reporters Hayley Gleeson and Julia Baird wondered, “Why are our prisons full of domestic violence victims?” 

Women, particularly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, end up in prison for unpaid fines. Women suffering domestic violence call the police, and, if they have unpaid fines, the police come … and take the women to prison, as happened to a 35-year-old Noongar woman in September 2017. In what world does that make sense? In our world.

In Australia, rates of incarceration are increasing regularly, and women’s rates of incarceration far outnumber the rates for men. Why? Explanations include criminalization of women’s homelessness, women’s mental illness, women’s addictions, women’s poverty, women’s health. The bottom line is women. Cash bail systems and prison for unpaid fine systems are just another weapon in the State war on women. While Western Australia is the only state in Australia that imprisons people for unpaid fines, the issue is mass and hyper incarceration. As Debbie Kilroy noted, “The wheels are just turning so slowly. This is a priority for many Australians across the country, it’s not just a West Australian issue. It’s nice to say we will get draft legislation in six months but come on.”

We don’t need another report. We need action, and not only in Australia. If you can, consider donating to Debbie Kilroy’s FreeThePeople campaign, here. Whether you do or not, remember the women, around the world, who call the people because they are being abused and end up in prison. It’s way past time to shut that system down. Come on.

(Infographic Credit: ABC)

In Western Australia, Bandyup Women’s Prison is still (akin to) torture. Shut it down!

Inside Bandyup Women’s Prison

On December 12, Neil Morgan, the Inspector of Custodial Services for Western Australia, released a scathing report summary, benignly entitled The birth at Bandyup Women’s Prison in March 2018. Just in time for Christmas, the report tells the story of Amy (not her real name) who gave birth, alone in a cell, at Bandyup Women’s Prison, the only women’s prison in Western Australia. The Inspector’s media release on the report opens: “The Inspector of Custodial Services, Neil Morgan, has voiced serious concerns about a birth at Bandyup Women’s Prison on 11 March 2018. Despite pleading for help multiple times for over an hour, a woman (‘Amy’) gave birth alone in a locked cell at 7.40pm. Staff observed events through a hatch in the cell door, but the door was not unlocked for several minutes after the birth.

On releasing a summary of his report into the birth, Mr Morgan said: `I wanted to know how such an event could occur in a 21st Century Australian prison and to prevent it happening again.’” What do we imagine a 21stCentury prison, Australian or otherwise, is, and especially for women? Bandyup Women’s Prison has been known as a hellhole for years, and yet … there it is.

Here is Amy’s story, reduced to a timeline. At 5:30, Amy made a cell call, saying she was in labor. She was taken Bandyup Health Centre. The nurses were not told of the cell call. So, they gave her paracetamol, or acetaminophen, and sent her back to her cell. At 6 pm, the prison went into night lock down. At 6:30, Amy made a number of cell calls. She sounded distressed and said she was in labor. Custodial staff came to the door, and talked to Amy, through the door. Amy became increasingly distressed. Nursing staff arrived around 7:35, a full hour later. According to the Inspector’s report, “By this time, Amy’s distress was palpable, and she clearly needed help. However, the nursing staff could only assess her through the locked cell door, because the only person with cell keys was a senior staff member in the gatehouse.” At 7:40, alone, in a cramped cell, Amy gave birth: “Excessive delays continued even after Amy had delivered her child. Due to poor record keeping, we cannot put a precise time on it, but it took somewhere between seven and 12 minutes before the officer from the gatehouse arrived with the keys, and the cell door was opened. This finally allowed assistance to be provided. Amy and her baby were transferred to hospital that evening.”

Why was Amy in prison? The Inspector’s report begins: “On 30 January 2018, a woman we will call ‘Amy’ appeared in court. She was in the late stages of pregnancy and was granted bail subject to a number of conditions. However, she was unable to meet the conditions and was taken to the Melaleuca Remand and Reintegration Facility (Melaleuca). On 17 February 2018, Amy was moved to Bandyup Women’s Prison (Bandyup).” Amy was in prison because she couldn’t pull together enough money to post bail. 

Why was Amy in prison? Amy is an Indigenous woman, living in Australia. In Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in prison are the fastest growing prison population. Amy is an Indigenous woman living in Western Australia. Western Australia has the highest imprisonment rate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in Australia and boasts the highest rates of Indigenous prisoners awaiting trial

Bandyup Women’s Prison has been acknowledged, for years, as a hellhole. In 2015, it was the most overcrowded prison in Western Australia, famous for an Indigenous woman’s death in custodygross mismanagement of vulnerable individuals and populations, sponsoring a culture of despair, and worse. In 2015, Neil Morgan, the same Neil Morgan, issued a damning report. Three years later, the State is shocked to discover the conditions of the 21stCentury Australian prison. The time for inspections,reports, shock and discovery is over. How many more women must give birth, alone, in a filthy cramped cell, simply because they can’t pay the exit fee? How many more Indigenous women must suffer torture and death behind bars for having committed the crime of being-Indigenous-woman? How many more Amy’s? Close Bandyup Women’s Prison today. Shut it down!

(Photo credit: The West Australian)

“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in prison are the fastest growing prison population”

A cell at Brisbane Women’s Correctional Centre

Human Rights Watch released a report today, I Needed Help, Instead I Was Punished: Abuse and Neglect of Prisoners with Disabilities in Australia, that describes the horror of prison for those living with disabilities. Prisoners living with disabilities are tortured in every way possible, from extended and extensive use of solitary confinement to sexual violence to physical and psychological torture to … The list is endless. One prisoner spent 19 years in solitary confinement. Prison-carers provide care for prisoners with high support needs. In one prison, six of the eight prison-carers are convicted sex offenders. At the center of this garden of earthly evil are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. At the center of that center are Aboriginal and Torres Islander Strait women: “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in prison are the fastest growing prison population”. None of this is new.

HRW researchers reached women at Bandyup Women’s Prison, in West Swan, Western Australia, and Brisbane Women’s Correctional Centre, in Wacol, Brisbane, Queensland. Both are infamous for chronic overcrowding and the occasional death in custody. Today’s report largely reiterates earlier findings. The hyper-incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait women is “integrally linked to the social and economic disadvantages that result from years of structural discrimination.”

Many people with disabilities that we interviewed, particularly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women with disabilities, had experienced family and sexual violence multiple times in their lives. Facing sexual, physical, and verbal violence in prison, particularly from staff, perpetuates this cycle of violence and creates distrust between staff and prisoners. One woman with a disability told Human Rights Watch: “The officers [use] intimidation tactics. Especially for us girls, that just reminds us of our domestic violence back home, it scares us. If you want to get through to us, they should be nice to us.” Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women have high rates of psychosocial disabilities, intellectual disability, and trauma: “About 73 percent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men and 86 percent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in prison have a diagnosed mental health condition …. Among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in Queensland prisons, 73 percent of male and 86 percent of female Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners had a diagnosed psychosocial disability”.  Aboriginal and Torres Strait women have more contact with police, generally, and the contact starts at a younger age. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women with disabilities “experience higher rates of poverty, homelessness, domestic and sexual violence, and abuse than non-indigenous peers and peers without disabilities.”

“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in prison are the fastest growing prison population, and 21 times more likely to be incarcerated than non-indigenous peers.”

None of this is new. These very issues came up in major reports published in  2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, and last year. It’s a new year, and so we have another study that reports that Australia, like the United States, has invested a great deal in intensifying the vulnerability of the most vulnerable, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women. The more vulnerable women become, the more they are told to shoulder responsibility, individually and as a group, for all the wrongs that have been inflicted upon them, body and soul. Women suffer repeated trauma, and it’s their fault. Prisons are cruel and ineffective, especially for women, and that’s just fine. Mass incarceration is destroying indigenous women and families, and that’s just fine. Everything is fine. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in prison are the fastest growing prison population.

 

(Photo Credit: ABC)