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A new campaign is calling on Victorian premier Daniel Andrews to show his progressive values by drastically reducing the number of women and children in jail. By Denham Sadler.

Campaign to keep women out of jail

The Federation of Community Legal Centres Victoria launch for the No Pride in Prisons campaign in February.
Credit: Courtesy FCLC

Sara* already felt she was in prison long before she was first incarcerated. From a very young age, she experienced a broad range of traumas – sexual abuse, foster care, domestic violence.

She has had recurring periods of homelessness since she was 15, and became addicted to drugs, which eventually led to a 40-day sentence in a Victorian prison in 2017 for drug-related offences.

“The life that I had on the outside was like living in prison,” says Sara, now 29. “Then when I was actually in jail, I lost everything I had.”

With co-operation from her lawyer and the police, she was bailed into a drug rehabilitation centre in 2017, where she remained for eight months. She has been clean for the past 16 months.

Sara has joined the advisory council for the Federation of Community Legal Centres and the Smart Justice project’s new campaign, which aims to get 7000 women and 3000 children out of Victorian prisons in the next five years.

The “Free Our Sisters, Free Our Kids” campaign is calling on the Victorian government to reconsider many of its crime policies amid a skyrocketing prison population in the state.

Victoria’s prison population rose by 67 per cent over the decade to 2016, and the state’s incarceration rates are currently at their highest since 1896. The state’s female prison population grew by 75 per cent in the same time period and has continued to grow since.

“The rising numbers of women in prison is really alarming,” says Melanie Poole, the director of strategy, policy and engagement at the Federation of Community Legal Centres. “These are people [for whom] going to prison destroys their lives. They do not need to be there, and they shouldn’t be there. They are ending up there because of homelessness, trauma, abuse and poverty.”

The campaign says these policies are affecting Indigenous women and children most acutely. During the decade to 2016, the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in prison jumped by 147 per cent.

“You can’t say you’re the most progressive government in the most progressive state when you are building a supermax prison that we know is going to fill up with Aboriginal children,” says Poole. “When one in four women is coming into prison from homelessness, you’ve got to ask why the government is choosing to spend billions on contracts with multinational companies who profit from prisons yet is spending a small fraction of that amount on the supports that women need.”

Sara and her fellow campaign advisers watched on with frustration and despair as last year’s Victorian election became a contest over which party could offer a greater “tough on crime” stance.

“They’re talking about these things that they know nothing about,” says Christina*, who served two-and-a-half years for drug-related offences. “Going to talk to a bunch of academics about things isn’t going to teach you anything. Go out and actually meet us, and stop being so fearful. All their stuff is based around fear.”

Christina was forced to organise her own rehabilitation while she was still serving her sentence and opted to stay in jail when she was eligible for parole, in an attempt to avoid the cycle of reoffending and drugs that awaited her on the outside.

“When the end of the sentence was coming up, I started getting that urge to use,” she says. “So, I had to organise by myself the rehab when I got out. I did that all by myself. It was difficult and challenging but I was lucky.”

She spent nearly an extra year in jail while she was organising it. “By the time I got out, I only had seven days of parole to go,” she says.

She was released from prison in mid-January 2018 and has been clean for 17 months.

Many of the women now working on the campaign have gone through rehab since their release from prison and say if they had come into contact with the service earlier, they may have avoided incarceration entirely.

Absidy*, 29, who is also on the advisory panel, says her drug-related offending and addiction went hand in hand with her experiences of domestic violence, leading her to being homeless, squatting in abandoned houses and committing crimes to support her drug habit.

“I could either have kept going the way I was going and that would have been my life, but somewhere deep inside of me I had a desire to not be in that lifestyle anymore,” she says. “I didn’t know how, and I was broken and in too much pain, but I couldn’t go on anymore like that.”

The majority of women in Victorian prisons are not violent offenders. Most serve short sentences or are held on remand – nearly 95 per cent of women in prison are incarcerated for less than a year, while half are in prison for less than a month. However, a large number of women in prison are mothers, and even brief stints of incarceration can have a devastating impact, including potentially causing them to lose custody of their children.

Shanti* was sentenced to 14 days’ jail to “dry out” after her house was raided by police, who had mistakenly listed the property as a known drugs house. Prosecutors didn’t consider the fact she was the sole carer of her eight-year-old son as a reason to look at non-prison options.

“My exceptional circumstances weren’t exceptional enough,” she says.

In many ways though, Shanti was one of the lucky ones. Her mother was able to take care of her son, so she didn’t lose custody. But in order to step in, Shanti’s mother had to cancel a trip to visit her own father, who passed away soon after without her being able to say goodbye.

“When they say that it hurts families,” says Shanti, “I totally and utterly understand that.”

The Free Our Sisters campaign is looking to abolish short sentences such as the one Shanti served, calling instead for an emphasis on decriminalisation and rehabilitation to tackle the root causes of these drug-related offences.

“A woman can spend a week in prison and that can destroy the rest of her life. They’re already doing it really tough and they’re at a point where they really need support, but instead we push them into prison,” says Melanie Poole.

“Women are coming into contact with the justice system because of poverty and family violence, being thrown in prison and then being released with minimal or no support and a criminal record that will stigmatise them for the rest of their lives.”

Although her prison stint was relatively short, Sara says it still had a lasting impact on both her relationships and her employment prospects. After her 40-day sentence, she completed a Certificate IV in alcohol, drugs and mental health and is studying for a diploma in community services (case management). But her criminal record, which she may have for life under Victorian law, has prevented her from finding employment or a placement in this field.

“There are a lot of stereotypes, and people think that because you’ve been in prison that you’re no good,” she says. “No one actually looks at the history of someone’s life and what led them in there. Even if they are sentenced for a really short period of time then they’ve got that stigma attached to them for the rest of their lives.”

In response to a number of questions on the campaign and the policies discussed, Victorian Minister for Crime Prevention, Corrections, Youth Justice and Victim Support Ben Carroll said the Victorian government is balancing addressing the root causes of crime.

“The Andrews Labor government has delivered important reforms focused on keeping Victorians safe, including investing in additional police, taking unprecedented action on family violence and setting up a royal commission into mental health,” Carroll told The Saturday Paper.

“The government is focused on addressing the root causes of crime and we are investing in programs that break the cycle of offending, including for young people and women.”

The state government has said it is funding a number of programs looking to assist women and children in prison, including $15 million since 2016-17 for the Youth Crime Prevention Grant program, $12.9 million in the last budget for an expansion of the Victorian Children’s Court Youth Diversion program, and nearly $6 million to provide women’s prisons with “therapeutic family violence recovery programs and specialist trauma counselling”.

According to the campaign, though, too much of the government’s expenditure on youth justice is spent on custodial sentences, with only 3 per cent going towards court-based diversion and restorative justice.

More broadly, the Free Our Sisters campaign has laid down a major challenge to the state government, after Premier Daniel Andrews claimed on election night he would lead the “most progressive government in the most progressive state”.

“We don’t think he can say that this current government is that when we’re locking up people in these numbers,” Poole says. “Being progressive is about making sure you’re supporting the people doing it tough. They’ve now got a big majority and a clear signal from the electorate that progress and fairness are what they want to see, and they’ve got the time to be able to make meaningful changes.”

Many of the women advising the Free Our Sisters campaign want to devote their lives to helping other people who have experienced similar traumas and struggles with the law. And to help them before they are facing incarceration, to give them the chance they didn’t have.

Along with her studies, Sara is doing volunteer work and presentations for an anti-ice campaign and is also involved with the Women Transforming Justice Project, run out of the Fitzroy Legal Centre. The changes in her life led a magistrate to label her the “poster girl for rehabilitation”. He said that in his 22 years on the bench he hadn’t seen anyone “pull themselves out of the hole of drug addiction” as she had.

“I really do hope to be making a difference somewhere in the lives of others,” Sara says. “You only get one opportunity to live, so you may as well do what you can.”

* Names have been changed.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 6, 2019 as "Dare to reprieve". Subscribe here.

Denham Sadler
is a freelance writer based in Melbourne.