Indigenous women are the fastest growing segment of the prisoner population in Australian jails, according to a new report. The current situation is a 'national crisis' that is not being addressed by the government.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women make up about 34 percent of Australia's female prison population despite being just 2 percent of the adult female population, a report released on Monday said.
The imprisonment rate for indigenous women had risen nearly 250 percent since a 1991 government investigation into Aboriginal deaths in custody, according to the report by the Human Rights Law Centre and campaign groups Change the Record.
"The over-imprisonment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women is a growing national crisis that is being overlooked by all levels of government in Australia," the report said, adding that female numbers were often drowned in a flood of larger statistics on indigenous men.
In an accompanying statement, Annette Vickery, deputy CEO of a service providing legal aid to indigenous people in the state of Victoria, highlighted the deleterious effect on indigenous families and communities when women, most of them mothers, were imprisoned.
"While Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are often in custody for short periods, even a short time can cause devastating and long term upheaval - children taken into child protection, stable housing lost, employment denied," she said. "Governments should be doing everything they can to help women avoid prison to prevent the devastating rippling effects of women's imprisonment on children and families."
The report slammed Australian governments past and present for failing to implement preventive measures.
"Succesive governments have forfeited opportunities to prioritize preventative and diversionary approaches that are tailored to address the drivers of offending," the report said. It said almost all indigenous women in prison were "survivors of physical and sexual violence" and that housing insecurity, poverty, mental illness, disability and traumatic disorders often compounded their problems.
It accused the justice system of tending toward punishment, reinforcing the disadvantages the women already faced, rather than providing them with opportunities to gain support and rehabilitation.
The report called on justice authorities to "build systems that focus on empowering Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women to turn their lives around."