No Justice for First Nations Women

By Eleanor McKelvey - National Director of Online Engagement (Blog)

For this week’s post, we interviewed Debbie Kilroy OAM. Kilroy is the Founder of Sisters Inside, an organisation which advocates for the collective interests of women in the criminal justice system, and provides services to address their more immediate needs. Debbie talked to OWP about the systemic racism and oppression which underpins the Australian criminal justice system.

1. Australia’s prison system is highly problematic – but in what ways does it fail Aboriginal and Torres-Strait Islander women in particular?

The prison system is an absolute failure. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are over 20 times more likely to be in prison than non-Indigenous women. Nationally, over 60% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in prison been in prison before and, in Queensland, it's closer to 70% for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women. In Queensland, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are more likely to be on remand and have high security classifications; this means that, within the prison system, there is greater exposure to routine forms of violence, such as strip searching and solitary confinement. Women are often on remand because they do not have access to safe, affordable housing or health care services, such as drug rehabilitation or mental health services. When you start to make links between the social services system and the prison system, it's clear that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are pipelined into the prison system because of laws and policies. This is not accidental.

2. Sisters Inside “work[s] alongside criminalised women, supporting them to address the issues and needs that are most important to them.” What are some of the most common issues and needs of criminalised Aboriginal and Torres-Strait Islander women?

At Sisters Inside, we work from a model of 'Inclusive Support'; we recognise that every woman and girl is the expert in her own life, and it is not for us to decide what issues or needs matter most to her. We work from a model of power with not power over. As a result of the ongoing impacts of colonisation in this country, many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and girls have experienced poverty, homelessness, serious domestic, family and state violence, child removal, criminalisation or imprisonment as children, grief and loss of family members and dispossession from country. But we don't define women by these experiences. Women are creative, resourceful and resilient, and their strength should be celebrated.

3. In addition to service provision for individual women, Sisters Inside undertakes lobbying and collective advocacy. What sorts of lobbying and advocacy has Sisters Inside undertaken on behalf of First Nations women?

At Sisters Inside, I use my profile to raise systemic issues with and for criminalised and imprisoned women with Government bodies. This year, we started the FreeThePeople campaign via GoFundMe to raise money for Aboriginal mothers in Western Australia who are in prison, or at risk of imprisonment, for unpaid fines. The Western Australian Government committed to changing the laws to end the use of imprisonment for fine default years ago, but in 2019, we are still seeing women go to prison as a result of poverty. The community response to this campaign has been great and we've put this issue back on the agenda. We're still waiting on the legislation, and we'll be watching closely for the Western Australian Government to make changes this year.

4. Between 2017 and 2018, over a third of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people convicted of crimes were aged under 25 years. Has Sisters Inside identified some of the factors which make young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women especially susceptible to criminalisation? How can these factors be addressed?

Across Australia, the minimum age of criminal responsibility is 10 years old. As a starting point, we must recognise that we criminalise children from a very young age and we must stop to think what kind of system imprisons a 10 year old child? What we see over and over again is that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander girls are pipelined from the so-called child protection system, through residential care to youth prisons, and then adult prisons. Many of the young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women we work with in the adult prison system have been in so-called 'care' and have experienced significant trauma through that system. To decrease the numbers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people in prison, we must end the criminalisation of children, and we must end the new Stolen Generation.

5. Sisters Inside has been successful at turning around the lives of many women since it was established in 1992. Have the actions and values of Sisters Inside changed at all during this time?

At Sisters Inside, we are very clear about our Values and Vision. We developed these with women in prison, and all staff work within the Values and Vision as our guiding framework. You can read the Values and Vision at https://www.sistersinside.com.au/about/sisters-inside/our-values-and-vision/.

6. If you could make 3 immediate changes to the Australian prison system, what would they be?

Well, if it was possible, I would close all prisons tomorrow. But I actually believe it limits our imagination to focus on prisons and on solutions within the prison system. To imagine abolition, we must think outside and beyond the bars. So the big changes I would make wouldn't be about the prison at all. I would want every woman in prison to have safe, affordable and high quality housing; access to the health services she wanted; and to know that she was part of a community that valued and supported her.

I know that I will not see abolition in my lifetime. For this reason, Sisters Inside will continue to expose the violence of the prison system and call for changes within prisons that support women on a day-to-day basis. I would start by ending strip searching immediately. Strip searching is sexual assault by the state and it must stop if we're serious about ending violence against women.

7. What resources would you recommend for those of us who want to learn more about the racism that underpins systems of social control in Australia?

Some American abolitionists have put together a great 'Prison Abolition Syllabus', which is available at: https://www.aaihs.org/prison-abolition-syllabus-2-0/. I recommend that everyone starts with Angela Davis' book, Are Prisons Obsolete? at https://collectiveliberation.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/Are_Prisons_Obsolete_Angela_Davis.pdf. For Australian perspectives, there are some great resources on the Sisters Inside website, including submissions we've prepared for government reviews and inquiries.


8. What actions can someone, as a member of the non-incarcerated community, take in order to be allies of criminalised Indigenous women?

I think for all of us who are non-Indigenous, we have to start the work of being an ally by unpacking whiteness, understanding the true history of this country and understanding our complicity in systems that harm Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, children and communities. To directly support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women affected by the criminal legal system, you can donate to Sisters Inside. You can also donate to the FreeThePeople GoFundMe campaign to support Aboriginal mothers in Western Australia at risk of imprisonment for fine default: https://au.gofundme.com/bfvnvt-freethepeople.

To support the invaluable work of Sisters Inside, you can donate here.