More Australian women are going to prison than ever before and a look at the statistics shows that it's not doing a great deal of good for those women or for us. Thirty percent of them are indigenous, more than half have a mental illness, and almost all of them are poor. And Australians are paying for it.
Incarceration is an expensive business. For every woman locked up in prison, it costs taxpayers $305 dollars every day to support them. For every girl under 18 in juvenile detention the cost is more than double that.
The majority of women in prison haven't committed crimes that endanger society. Most women are locked up for drug-related crimes, or factors associated with drug abuse—stealing money to support a drug addiction. Across Australia's prisons, two thirds of female prisoners have come from violent relationships, while half have experienced sexual abuse as children. It shouldn't be surprising that most women in prison turned to drugs to self-medicate.
Indigenous women make up two percent of Australia's population, but represent 30 percent of our female prison population. This isn't because indigenous people are simply more likely to commit crimes. Indigenous women are ten times more likely than other women to be murdered, and the incidence of head injuries due to assault is 70 times higher than the general population. Like most other women in prison, they're far more likely to come from a disadvantaged background. Violence makes people turn to drugs. Drugs get you put in prison.
Women are more likely to get diseases like Hepatitis C, as well as experience mental illness, self-harm, disease and violence than men in prison are. Like men's prisons, women's prisons are violent.
They've broken the law, but these are mostly small scale crimes—nearly two-thirds of sentences are for less than six months. Essentially we're taking women who are vulnerable, disadvantaged and poor, we're taking away their children and we're compounding past traumas. And, we're paying through the teeth to do it.
But does it work? Well, no.
The women most at risk of committing a crime are former prisoners. Almost 60 percent of women in prison have been there before, and 42 percent of them return within two years. Being in juvenile detention is the surest way to end up in adult prison later. Women who are released from prison are at a huge disadvantage when it comes to finding a job, renting a house, getting their kids back. It's really tough, and usually easier to go back to the life that had landed them in prison in the first place, whether it's to abusive partners, drug dealers or simply being poor and having to steal to survive.
So what can be done?
Obviously if people have enough money to feed their kids and survive they won't steal, and if they're not being beaten up they probably won't need drugs. But those are pretty big things to fix.
What's a bit easier is helping women who come out of prison to stay out of prison – after all, former prisoners are the most likely future criminals. When you get out of prison usually a lot of friends won't want to see you. But having just one friend can make all the difference.
A Sydney NGO does this – the Women in Prison Advocacy Network links up prisoners with someone who has their life together who can help them with basic stuff like finding a house and looking for work and filling in forms and lobbying to get their kids back. They've had huge success in helping women to stay out of prison.
Apart from the fact that this is good for the women, it's also good for taxpayers. It costs $4000 a year to mentor a woman, and it costs $113,325 a year to lock her up. The mentoring program already saves the Government more than $2 million every year.
People who break the law should probably be punished for it, but that punishment should end once they've done their time.
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