Indigenous Australia

Indigenous women behind bars: Persecuted by the system

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Aboriginal women are the most over-represented group in the prison population (Image via

The treatment of criminalised women and girls in Australian prisons is deteriorating rapidly, but it is a whole lot worse if you happen to be Indigenous, writes Debbie Kilroy.

The treatment of criminalised and imprisoned women and girls is deteriorating rapidly in Australia. The Productivity Commission’s updated report on Indigenous disadvantage, which showed a huge jump in the number of Indigenous people being imprisoned and in the numbers self-harming, is an indictment on us all — but the information isn’t new.

The prison system hides behind thousands of pages of law and polices that suggest women prisoners are treated fairly and with dignity, and that they are in prison to protect the community. This is what makes it difficult to expose the raw reality of women and girls’ exposure to systematic breaches of human rights on a daily basis behind bars.

The prison system can cover up, side-step the truth, create smoke and mirrors. The prison system feeds into the rhetoric that we, as advocates, are just misleading the community, hysterical and even liars.

This week's cover up and diversion tactics by the Queensland prison system concerned the access of a newborn baby to his mother's breast milk.

This baby boy was removed from his mother just days after his birth and placed in care. His mother was returned to prison and both were denied the right to spend these vital weeks in the purpose-built cells for mothers and babies. Instead, the system facilitated the removal of this little Aboriginal boy and placed him in foster care. His mother was given a mattress on the cell floor, due to overcrowding.

I cannot imagine the trauma this young mother is experiencing — her grief and loss. However, I do remember the trauma when my children were taken from me when I was sentenced to six years in prison. That was unbearable.

This young mother is still producing breast milk and she wants to continue to provide it for her baby, though no officials provided her a breast pump. 

Our group, Sisters Inside, took her a breast pump. We were told the breast pump would not be accepted, as the woman did not fill out a form — red tape and policies used again to block access to something as vital as a breast pump for a new mum. 

When are the best interests of a newborn baby taken into account? The prison system talks the talk but sidesteps action when the reality arrives.

It took an email from Sisters Inside to the general manager of the prison before we could take the breast pump to her. However, we don't have confirmation that she has actually received the pump and we won't until we see the young mother again. Our concern is that the prison system may not allow us access to her again because we have made this issue very public and exposed the abuse inflicted on mother and child.

The prison system's response to date is that I do not have the whole story and they can't discuss it further because of "privacy".

The question isn't about the whole story or privacy.

The question is: why  weren't a newborn baby and his mother given permission by the prison system to access the mothers and babies unit, considering she has  less than a month until  release? Why didn't the prison system and/or child safety provide a breast pump for the young mother, given their policies state that such a decision is made in the best interests of the child? Why are so many Aboriginal mothers and babies denied access to the mothers and baby units in women's prisons? Why are the vast majority of mothers in prison with newborn babies not supplied with breast pumps, bottles and refrigeration for breast milk? 

This issue is about a newborn baby.

Governments beat their chests with pride about the best interests of children but don't ensure the best interests of children are complied with when it comes to babies born in prison. It is about the removal of another Aboriginal baby, the new stolen generation at the dirty hands of the state, hiding behind unjust laws and policies.

To all those shocked by the Productivity Commission's findings, I would say — this is where it starts. A baby removed from his mother, denied even her breast milk in a plastic bottle. Fast forward to where this mother and this baby boy might be in 10 or 15 years.

Go on, think about it.

When women and girls inform me of the trauma they experience behind bars, I believe them. I don't believe the prison system tries to lessen the women's and girls' experiences of violence and abuse at the hands of the system. I believe Aboriginal women and girls when they say they experience daily racism in prison. I believe women and girls when they say they experience sexism and misogynist treatment daily in prison.

Aboriginal women are the most over-represented group in the prison population. 

In the last decade, Aboriginal women's imprisonment rates have increased by 58.6 per cent, whereas non-indigenous men's prison population has increased by 3.6 per cent. The data clearly exposes the structural and systemic racism and sexism in laws and policies.

Put this together with the fact that more than 85 per cent of women in prison are primary caregivers of children and the commission's findings are no surprise at all.

Debbie Kilroy OAM MLB is the CEO of Sisters Inside and is the first person convicted of a serious criminal offence to be admitted to practice law in Australia. You can follow Debbie on Twitter @DebKilroy.

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