Tabitha Lean and
Debbie Kilroy

Speaking out for criminalised women

Tabitha Lean

When I came out of prison, I noticed there was a concerted censoring of my voice every single time I wanted to speak out about my experiences within the criminal punishment system. This came at me in many ways – aggressively, subtly and, at times, very publicly.

Most obviously, and I dare say predictably, the system didn’t like me publicly raising its violence and brutality. Like every abusive relationship, it thrives on silence. This ranges from setting stringent conditions that prevent us from speaking up or out, to saying we have to get permission before participating in forums or discreetly punishing us for speaking truth to power.

Then there were the criminologists who wanted to trade off my stories and experiences for their own gain. I was never referenced in the articles they built off my stories, or acknowledged for my intellectual contribution to their critical analysis of the structural and violent oppression of prisons. There were the academics, too, and some members of the media, who would welcome my lived-experience voice, conditionally. Conditions that they set arbitrarily for me, without even telling me – and just like that I was before a panel of judges again, watching them adjudicate my worth and humanity. The legitimacy and elevation of my voice seemed to be solely dependent on a couple of things.

The inclusion of my voice was dependent on my desistance, because the voices of those in the system are only useful if we are “reformed”, “corrected” and, in my case, no longer the “savage” that the colony imagined. My opportunity to speak was entirely dependent on the type and nature of my offending. And the perceived “legitimacy” of my contribution was absolutely dependent on my ability to articulate my view or position objectively, because apparently my subjectivity was filthy and messy and, worse, rendered my views useless.

So, let’s get this straight. Yes, I was in prison for two years. I have also done a total of two years in home detention and will be tethered to the criminal “justice” system for several more. I have made mistakes, some of them truly despicable. I am an Aboriginal woman, a single mother and now a convicted criminal – the trifecta of your Aboriginal “problem”, hey?

Do the crime, do the time…

Here’s the thing. I am 44 years old. My “offending” spanned two years, according to police records. This means I have lived 42 very full and very worthwhile years. In those 42 years, I have had a distinguished career – multiple careers, in fact. I have achieved an honours degree and started a master’s program. I have been a volunteer in countless organisations. I have raised three exceptional human beings who are also known as my kids. I am a daughter, an aunty, a niece, a mother, a granddaughter. I paint and I write. I love, and I love fiercely – ask any of my friends or family. I am a proud Aboriginal woman, and honour and treasure my Elders. So, you see, I am so much more than those two years of regrettable choices, and the now very permanent criminal record. My conviction is a part of me, but not all that I am. Yet, every time I sit with you, you assume I am offering myself up for your judgement.

I am not.

With everything I have lost because of my imprisonment, I do still have my voice – a voice I intend to raise. People who have been to prison – former prisoners, your fellow citizens – have a right to speak up about our experiences. We have a right to tell our story. We have a right to have a say in policies that affect us. We have a right to contribute to the local, state and national discourse about the criminal “justice” system, policing and prisons – because we are experts in our own oppression and can bring unique and valuable insights to the table. We don’t need a piece of paper to allow us to speak because the scars of imprisonment are carved into us. The credibility of our voice is not something you are qualified or in a position to judge – whether you are in the media, in the academy or on the street. You don’t get to cherrypick from the list of “ex-cons” to decide whose story you think is worthy of hearing.

In the same way we talk about the “perfect victim”, you have created your “perfect offender”. The quiet person who stumbled aimlessly, perhaps unwittingly, or maybe a little mischievously, into crime – always a petty crime, and definitely always a nonviolent offence. You like a hard-luck story, a destitute childhood, maybe an addiction thrown in. You definitely want us women to have been a victim at some point, especially if we are Black. You like us to have a story of triumph, an “overcoming the odds” epic tale. You like us corrected, reformed, contrite and apologetic. You want us softly spoken, and definitely articulate – God forbid we are angry, or swear and curse. Then and only then can our voice be heard, because we are the perfect, polite and unthreatening picture of criminality and, better, “rehabilitation”.

But you know what? We’re not taking that anymore. Not only will we not let you cherrypick your perfect “offender”, you won’t be speaking on our behalf anymore. In early June, Debbie Kilroy of Sisters Inside convened the very first meeting of criminalised women in this country with a view to establishing a dynamic network of incredibly passionate women to drive “our business”, our way, for us. It was a meeting full of brilliant minds, authentic stories, a wealth of wisdom and a hell of a lot of courage, grit and drive to centre our business, underpinned by the principle, “nothing about us, without us”.

And you know what: we will be bringing the force of lived experience – that messy subjectivity – to the fore, because that’s what gives this movement power. This is what is going to drive change – because we all know, if you want something done right, you leave it to the women. So, we are inviting all criminalised women to join us. Let’s unite and raise our collective voice for change. And all of you who have never been in a police cell, or been strip-searched, or been to prison, get to have a front-row seat to an uprising of empowered women, who will change the face of “justice” in this country.

Afterword by Debbie Kilroy

It’s been almost 30 years since I was last trapped in the criminal punishment system and released from prison, but Tabitha’s account of her more recent experience rings very true for me. The criminal punishment system impacts so many women negatively. I continue to be routinely censored, discounted, watched and judged. The carceral system’s response to my critique of its violence has been brutal – particularly when I liken the treatment of women prisoners to torture. Despite my public national and international profile, I am still largely required to be “nice” – it’s almost as though I’m required to have built up a store of “niceness” to be allowed to occasionally express my legitimate anger at the obscene abuse experienced by women throughout the criminal punishment system. I live my life knowing that even the most minor infraction would put me back where I started. Despite having finished parole more than 20 years ago, and having completed four degrees, having been admitted as a practising lawyer and receiving multiple honours and awards, I am still primarily seen through the lens of my criminal history, as the “offender” – a label that is absolutely offensive. Despite being qualified to appear before the highest court in the country, I am banned for life from being a member of a community management committee. Like Tabitha, it seems that my time will never be done: that, in reality, the community believes that no former prisoner can be truly “rehabilitated”.

My convictions are part of me, but not all that I am. This not only applies to Tabitha, it is relevant to every criminalised woman. We are so much more than the worst thing we have done. It has been exciting to watch the growing confidence and voices of criminalised women throughout Australia over recent years. I can’t wait to see the incredible impact we will collectively have on the public discourse about crime, criminalisation and transformative justice in Australia.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 25, 2020 as "Speaking out for criminalised women".

For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.

All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.

There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

Use your Google account to create your subscription