Sexism and the prison industrial complex, right in your backyard

It’s a little known fact that in the developed world the number of women being sent to prison is growing exponentially, despite crime rates in most Western countries going down. The explanations for this are varied in their scope and plausibility: crimes committed by women are being targeted by law enforcement; greater numbers of single mothers are suffering economic hardship and turning to crime; and, my favourite, feminism has unleashed a new kind of woman who’s violent and more ‘man-like’ than ever before.

Women’s prisons, contrary to portrayals in films and media reports, are not filled with man-hating psycho killers paying dearly for their ‘mistakes’ against society. In most cases, it is society that has wronged these women, punishing them for a series of circumstances beyond their control.

Their first ‘mistake’ was being born female, while a disturbing proportion have been reproached for additional ‘wrongs’, such as being Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander (over a third [1]), disadvantaged (almost 80% are unemployed or unable to work when sent to prison [2]) and poorly educated (three quarters have not finished high school).

In other words, these women are grossly disadvantaged in what remains, in many respects, a white man’s world. It is this world that has put many of these women in prison.

The reality

To satisfy those sticklers for facts out there who aren’t buying my feminist critique of this situation, let’s look at the crimes these women committed.

The most common reasons women are imprisoned are for dealing drugs, using drugs or stealing (AIC 2003; SAC 2010). In other words, crimes that do not involve physical violence. Men, on the other hand, are far more likely to be behind bars for violent crimes.

The few women that are in prison for assaults or other violent offences have usually committed these acts in self-defence, against someone they know. Most commonly this is a violent partner or family member; someone who has been abusing the woman for many years with impunity.

The reasons women prisoners got caught up in theft or drug trafficking are fairly self-explanatory when you take a look at their backgrounds. Studies from across Australia, ranging in time from the early 1990s to 2010, consistently show a very bleak portrait of life before prison.

  • 36% of women in Victorian prisons were sexually abused as children[3]
  • 84% of women have a mental disorder[4]
  • 63% have injected illicit drugs. These women are far more disadvantaged economically and socially than male drug addicts.
  • Over 50% have been in two or more violent relationships.[5]

Another important difference between male and female prisoners is that a huge proportion of women in prison are first time offenders (60%), whereas just 2% of the male prison population are there for their first brush with the law.

So, your average female prisoner has probably never been in trouble with the law before, was unemployed before being locked up, and was stealing or dealing drugs to support a drug habit that is most likely related to a series of undiagnosed mental health issues, which are themselves related to a history of abuse and trauma.

What help is prison?

What does this say about our society? Why are we locking up these women – the vast majority of whom are mothers – at the first opportunity, at sharply increasing rates, as though they were seriously dangerous?

Looking at what prisons actually do to people (as opposed to what they claim to do) makes these questions even more pertinent. The act of sending someone to prison creates a total rupture in their life, as they are ripped out of their homes, communities and families and placed in another world that is completely alien to the one they just left.

For women with children, this rupture is all the more damaging. Often this damage only becomes apparent post-release when women have to try and re-connect with their children, find a place to live and a way to support their family with the stigma of a criminal record to boot.

The lack of suitable employment and education programs for women in prison, coupled with very limited follow-up support for women post-release, means that the transition back into life on the outside is a fraught one. Many do not make this transition and instead return to familiar habits. The result is them yoyo-ing between prison and the community. So why are courts doing sending women to prison and separating families when the benefits to the individual and to society are almost non-existent?

Women’s approaches to women offenders

This is the thinking that underpins a Queensland organisation trying to change the way women are treated by the justice system. This organisation, Sisters Inside, is unique in that it was founded by a former prisoner, for prisoners, and works with incarcerated women in every possible sense.

Women prisoners sit on the management committee, allowing them to have a direct say in the way Sisters Inside tackles the issues prisoners are living through every day. The experiences of women in prison are incorporated in the organisation’s publications, training manuals, submissions to government inquiries, media work – in short, their lived experiences are the foundation of Sisters Inside’s work.

While Sisters Inside offers a number of crucial support services to women in prison and those just released, the organisation is openly in favour of abolishing prisons, believing them to be “an irrational social response” that does not achieve results. Their views are echoed by an organisation right here in Victoria, Flat Out, which is also in favour of decarceration (yep – that’s the opposite of incarceration).

It is Sisters Inside’s outspoken stance and unwavering commitment to justice for society’s most marginalised women that has sometimes earned it the ire of governments both left-leaning and conservative. However, the newly elected Queensland government has taken the drastic step of cutting funding to a Sisters Inside program, as part of Campbell Newman’s scorched earth approach to the state budget.

This program operated at the Townsville women’s prison and provided critical services, predominantly to Indigenous women who have complex needs that put them at higher risk of re-offending. There is no other program like it in Townsville and Sisters Inside provided it on a budget of $120,000.

As long as governments continue to lock women up instead of dealing with them through alternative measures, organisations such as Sisters Inside and Flat Out are critical to ensuring that women prisoners break the cycle and move away from a life of crime. However, funding cuts and ‘tough on crime’ stances make it clear that governments across Australia are determined to fill the expensive prisons they continue to build. The logic of this, given the reasons why women offend, is not apparent

What is obvious is that a radically different approach is needed, given that current fixes that are tailored to male offenders do not work for women. These male-centric ‘solutions’ divide mother and children, putting them at greater risk of poverty and, down the track, future offending. Currently, more than a third of women return to prison post-release. When is the system going to recognise the biases that are putting women into prison many times over? And can the problem be solved in the current system where men make most decisions relating to justice and the law? My gut says no.

The sexism in our prison system has its origins in the sexism that exists on the outside, meaning wholesale change to Australian culture is needed. This is a problem that is very much ‘in your backyard’.


This blog post originally appeared on Pass This On in October 2012.


[1] 719 in June 2012; out of 2146 women. (ABS stats)

[2] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2010.

[3] Sentencing Advisory Council (Victoria) 2010, p.56.

[4] Tye & Mullen 2006, cited in Sentencing Advisory Council 2010, p.53.

[5] Sentencing Advisory Council 2010, p.56.

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