Lost among the headlines about the unprecedented infrastructure spending in this month’s Victorian State Budget, tucked away in a government issued media release, was a highly disturbing statistic. As part of the Government’s $453 million prison expansion, the state will increase the capacity of the women’s prison system by 34 per cent or, in human terms, from 416 to 561 places.
This correlates with the overall corrections picture, and the fact that the number of female prisoners in Australia has grown by 46 per cent to a total average daily count of 2,349 in mid-2013. However, there is little analysis to explain the increase — which has occurred at a much higher rate than the male prison population.
Increases in crime alone cannot explain our rising female prison population. This is evidenced by crime rates which have — with the exception of assault and sexual assault — been on a steady decline over the past decade. While more women are in prison for assault-related offences than 10 years ago, an increasing number of women are imprisoned for offences that have otherwise declined throughout society such as fraud, theft and drug offences.
The growing female prison population is the result of deliberate policy choices and reforms to sentencing, bail and parole. State governments of both political persuasions have proudly embraced ‘tough on crime’ stances, increasing the strain on our already overcrowded prison system.
This trend fits with a wider phenomenon in western democracies known as the penal turn. It’s become fashionable for politicians to campaign and govern on these tough on crime policies, promising safer communities when in fact the solutions proposed do not have an evidence base to substantiate their effectiveness.
A clear consequence of these punitive approaches is that we, as a society, are locking up some of our community’s most vulnerable members in greater numbers than we ever have before. Prisons have become the asylums of 21st century Australia. Through Jesuit Social Services’ lengthy history working with women exiting prison, we know that the majority are victims themselves of abuse, domestic violence or exploitation. A 2004 study, Drugs and Crime: A Study of Incarcerated Female Offenders by Holly Johnson, indicated that a staggeringly high 87 per cent of a sample of female prisoners in Victoria were the victims of sexual, physical or emotional abuse prior to entering the criminal justice system.
Of the female prisoners we provide hands-on services to, many have experienced homelessness, mental illness, drug and alcohol issues or have a disability.
It is an indictment on Australian society that instead of addressing these widespread social problems and supporting women that live with them, we are instead criminalising them. It is shocking to think that for a number of women, prison provides them with a sanctuary from the violence and other issues they face — offering a form of stability not present in their day-to-day lives.
Spending hundreds of millions of dollars on prison expansion is not what our society needs. Yet in Victoria, annual prison spending has increased by 54 per cent in real terms, to a total of $942 million, in just five years. At the same time as expanding women’s prisons, the 2014 state budget included the Victorian Government's efforts to respond to family violence and the series of tragic events throughout the state in recent months.
Included in the budget was an additional $4.5 million in 2014-15, a figure criticised by Victorian peak groups as "paltry" — a figure that will fail to address the severe pressure existing services are already under.
The net result — as absurd as it is — is that a large percentage of the women who will fill the 145 new prison beds in Victoria will themselves be victims of not only family violence but the state’s inadequate response to it. One might conclude that investing a percentage of the money spent on the prison beds into improving responses to family violence could eliminate the requirement for many of the new beds in the first place.
It’s an easy sell for governments to spruik law and order agendas and claim prison expansion will build better and safer communities but in reality it achieves little more than prolonging and entrenching the cycles of institutionalisation, trauma and neglect experienced by many female prisoners.
A challenging but more cost effective approach would be to attack the root causes of the behaviour that in so many cases is an underlying factor in women ending up behind bars.
Such an approach would undoubtedly demand more from us as a society, as it would force us to confront and respond to some of our deepest social problems. Only when we adequately address entrenched disadvantage and issues such as family violence, experiences of trauma and neglect, mental illness and alcohol and drug abuse, will the most vulnerable members of our society be able to break what are often lifelong affiliations with our criminal justice system.