On International Women’s Day,  our focus should be investing in addressing the factors that lead to the involvement of women in the justice system, writes Jesuit Social Services volunteer FRAN SHEAHAN.

Women prisoners, like all of us, belong to a complex system where relationships are critical to wellbeing. The interdependence at the heart of relationship means our lives and the places where we live both affect, and are affected by, our relationship with others.

The potential impacts of this web of relationship make it essential that we do all we can to ensure that women have every opportunity to live well when they emerge from prison. This means developing approaches that recognise the impact of the prison experience in women’s lives, and build on their strengths as well as those of their communities.

We have a wealth of knowledge about the situation faced by women when they exit prison, derived from numerous studies and reports, as well as the lived experience of women in prison and those with whom they work. The evidence is clear that women have unique pathways into the prison system and that the facilities and current practices that govern their experience do not always serve women well.

The Victorian Ombudsman’s Investigation into the rehabilitation and reintegration of prisoners in Victoria, coupled with Jesuit Social Services internal data show that:

  • 57 % of female prisoners report homelessness
  • 89 % report substance misuse
  • 59 % report mental health issues
  • 91 % of women exiting prison have experienced family violence.
  • 33 % of women have an Acquired Brain Injury, compared to just 2 % of the general population

This is exacerbated by two other factors that have a direct impact on the likelihood of entering the prison system:

  • Place of residence – half the people admitted to prison in Victoria come from six percent of postcodes, communities which have high levels of disadvantage. Dropping off the Edge 2015, Jesuit Social Services and Catholic Social Services
  • Being Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander – Victoria’s Indigenous prison population increased by 126 % in the ten years to 2016 compared to 53% for non-Indigenous. Jesuit Social Services 2018/9 Victoria State budget submission

The diversity and complexity of the factors contributing to women entering the prison system mean that nuanced and considered supports are required, rather than a one size fits all approach, particularly as it is following a global trend that has seen the number of women being imprisoned in Victoria rise by 65% in the last five years and the number held in remand double in the same period.

It is time to develop relationships across service providers, governments and communities that enhance the effectiveness of research and programs, as outlined in the Australian Law Reform Commission Discussion Paper: Incarceration Rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, which declares that “innovative changes in policy and practice are required to identify the specific individual and systemic factors impacting women at risk of incarceration, and place them at the heart of a truly integrated approach.”

There have been some positive steps in this direction. The Victorian Government’s 2005 initiative, Better Pathways, looked to reduce female offending and incarceration. The numbers, as noted, are still rising, but building on this, the recent release of Strengthening Connections: Women’s Policy for the Victorian Corrections system articulates a gender-responsive approach, proposing ways of working that include strong awareness of the ongoing effects of all trauma, including family violence and violence in the history and current life experience of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women. Importantly, it also acknowledges the power of prisons to re-traumatise women.

Providing options to keep women engaged in their community and social support networks, as an alternative to custodial sentencing, should be a priority. Through our ReConnect program, Jesuit Social Services provides targeted (up to four weeks) and intensive (up to 12 months) reintegration outreach services. One of the key target groups for the Reconnect program is women. Utilising individual transition plans, ReConnect provides assertiveoutreach and practical assistance, supporting people to address the underlying causes of their offending, facilitate community reintegration and reduce reoffending.

We also deliver restorative justice group conferencing to young boys and girls, enabling dialogue between young people who have offended, their victims and the wider community. This has proven to be very effective in reducing reoffending – an independent evaluation of young people who completed a group conference found that more than 80 per cent of participants had not reoffended two years later – this compared to 57 per cent for the comparison group.

Our research and submissions to government on justice issues are further informed by both our direct experience working with vulnerable women, and evidence gathered on our #JusticeSolutions research tour of Europe and the United States in 2017.

Over the last ten years the Victorian government has tripled its annual spending on prisons from $438 million to $1.3 billion dollars. As this massive investment in prisons has occurred, the political will to consider alternatives to prison that will help women to get their lives on track has diminished. Funding for the provision of programs to improve access to appropriate housing and support with mental health, acquired brain injuries or substance abuse issues has declined over this period, as it has for programs addressing the disadvantage of the communities to which many women in prison belong.

International Womens’ Day provides a much needed opportunity to reevaluate the systemic issues and social determinants that contribute to the involvement of women in the justice system. Political will resides not just in politicians but in the whole community. We all have a part to play. We can bring about a brighter future.