Australia's female prison population boom

Andi Yu
·3-min read

Australia's female prison population has grown faster in the past decade than that male inmates, a new study shows.

While female prisoners make up about eight per cent of the national jail population, rates of incarceration have risen by 64 per cent from 2009 to 2019. That equates to a shift from about 2100 to 3500 women, the Health and Welfare of Women in Australia's Prison's report released on Tuesday shows.

The growth rate is higher than the male prison population, which has risen by 45 per cent.

The report published by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare found stark patterns of disadvantage among women who end up behind bars.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders make up a third of female prisoners. More than half of women entering prison have at least one dependent child, and two thirds start their sentence with a mental health diagnosis.

The report said the growing numbers of women behind bars mean it's increasingly important to understand their health and wellbeing needs.

The report's main data was sourced from national prisoner statistics, and key information came from a survey of 117 women aged mostly between 24 to 44 on their entry to prison.

Seventeen per cent of women inmates had a parent or carer in prison during childhood, and more than half had at least one dependent child.

In 2017, 25 women gave birth in jail and 69 children under school age were living with their mothers in prison.

The report's findings point to a global trend of increasing female incarceration.

In Australia this could be due to crimes getting more serious over time, but also courts responding increasingly severely to minor offences.

A backlog of court cases and women waiting on remand for matters to be finalised could also be a contributing factor.

Ex-prisoner Debbie Kilroy advocates for the decarceration of women through her Brisbane-based organisation, Sisters Inside, and is unsurprised by the report's findings.

"When governments fail to address social issues, homelessness, mental illness, drug addictions, violence against women, violence against girls, we are going to continue to see the rising numbers of women pipe-lined into the prison system," she told AAP.

"More women with mental health issues are being pipe-lined into the prison system ... because it's the only - what the state would call 'service' - that actually can't lock them out."

A trajectory into prison is set from infancy for many First Nations women, when they are put in foster care, Ms Kilroy said.

"When no (foster) family wants you anymore you're put in residential care ... and children do have certain behaviours because of their traumas. They call the cops on them.

"Then they're being charged with criminal offences ... then they're being put in the youth prison, and then they go into the adult prison."

A criminal lawyer and Medal of the Order of Australia recipient for human rights work, Ms Kilroy does not believe prison reduces crime.

Furthermore many crimes women are imprisoned for are "street-type" offences that are not serious and could be addressed in other ways, she said.

"We must change the laws so that the baby and the mother can be in the community," she said.

AUSTRALIA'S WOMEN PRISONERS

* 72 per cent previously incarcerated

* Nearly three quarters recently used illicit drugs

* 17 per cent completed high school

* 24 per cent were unemployed

* Seven per cent were sleeping rough

* More than a third reported a chronic health condition

* More than half experience high levels of psychological distress

* Nearly a third reported a history of self harm

Lifeline 13 11 14

beyondblue 1300 22 4636