This article appears in The Incarceration Issue , a special edition of VICE Australia.
Australia's prisons can conjure images of the criminals we see on TV: dodgy guys from the suburbs and sordid city underbellies, tattooed thieves, rapists, and drug dealers.
Less often do we picture prisons full of female First Australians. Right now, black women in prison are the new black.
The issue isn't new. More than 20 years have passed since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody rang alarm bells over the number of Indigenous people in prison. The report made 339 recommendations, many aimed at cutting the number of Indigenous Australians behind bars.
But these recommendations were implemented differently in each state, and current ABS data shows the rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander incarceration has climbed more than 60 percent in the past 15 years. We're still grappling with what Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda has called "one of the most urgent human rights issues facing Australia," one that disproportionately affects Indigenous women.
Indigenous women are 16 times more likely to be jailed than non-Indigenous women.
"I've run out of adjectives, from emergency to urgent, to a catastrophe in the making, because the figures just keep climbing," Mr Gooda said in April.
While roughly three percent of Australian women identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, they make up almost a third of our female prison population. Indigenous women are 16 times more likely to be jailed than non-Indigenous women and, once they've come into contact with the justice system, are more likely to return to prison, repeating patterns etched by their mothers and grandmothers before them.
Of course, if you commit a crime, you do the time. However, a 2010 AIC report shows many Aboriginal women are serving more sentences for minor offences. They are also more likely to be on remand, which restricts their access to rehabilitation and diversionary programs. It's a hapless cycle—one that is sustained by systemic social disadvantage.
Eileen Baldry, professor of Criminology at the University of New South Wales, says the poverty and desperation experienced by many Aboriginal women are major factors. "There are quite significant rates of violence against Aboriginal women," Baldry told a conference at New South Wales Parliament last year. "There are significant experiences of use of drug and alcohol often to address those traumas. Larger numbers of Aboriginal women are experiencing homelessness and are experiencing cognitive impairment, sometimes from accidents, sometimes from foetal alcohol spectrum disorder."
Part of the problem is the "tough on crime" approach of successive governments. The current system doesn't consider the reasons women offend in the first place, says National Justice Coalition co-chair Kirstie Parker. "When you impose mandatory sentencing and take away a judge's discretion to look at all the circumstances that put people in front of them in that court, you are closing the door on whole families and whole communities," Parker told VICE.
"The sheer number of people who come from disadvantaged backgrounds tells us that if we address the disadvantage, we will stem that absolute torrent of people going into prison. It's so obvious… it's mind-boggling that it hasn't been grasped properly before now."
Earlier this year, the National Justice Coalition launched the Change the Record campaign. They have two targets by 2040: to close the gap in rates of imprisonment, and to curb high levels of violence in Aboriginal communities.
Family violence is a significant issue for all Australians, but the problem is worse for Indigenous women: police field six times more reports of domestic violence against women of colour than against non-Indigenous women. And when an Indigenous woman is attacked, she is 35 times more likely to end up in hospital.
"When people go into prison, that is an opportunity to help people"
But a fear within Indigenous communities over losing their children through reporting domestic violence deters many women from seeking help. "The Stolen Generations and all the philosophies that underpin it live on in people today," admits Parker. "People will do anything but put their hand up for help because they think, 'I will be penalised for that.'"
This July, the Royal Commission into Family Violence heard some magistrates sent Aboriginal female victims of domestic violence to prison due to a lack of emergency accommodation. These women had committed minor offences and were waiting for their cases to come before the courts. "I have magistrates tell me directly that they've had to remand mothers of our children because there's nowhere safe for the mother to be… which I find a sad indictment on this society," Andrew Jackomos, Aboriginal Children's Commissioner, told the hearing.
So how do we break the cycle? Early intervention is the key. "When people go into prison, that is an opportunity to help people, to help people to come to grips with the trauma that put them in there in the first place," Parker says. "To build some skills and to reassure them that when they get out they will be supported so they're not going to be in the same situation again. But it just doesn't happen."
According to the recent Productivity Commission, keeping some 35,000 people in prison costs Australian taxpayers over $3 billion each year. In contrast, Change the Record has found that supporting women in the community— providing counselling, medical care, and accommodation—is far more cost effective. "There's a high level of cost associated with locking people up… but that investment spread over a person's entire life would make an incredible difference," Parker says. "It's not just about the hip pocket, though. It is actually about building a better society."
Follow Hayley on Twitter