Stop the Women's Jail poster

SYDNEY, Australia (WOMENSENEWS)–Women’s advocates are campaigning to stop the scheduled construction here of a 200-bed women’s prison, arguing that it unnecessarily and disproportionately houses indigenous and disadvantaged women, mostly for nonviolent crimes.

The controversial facility will cost $42 million to build, plus $50,000 a year for each of its expected 200 inmates–a total of $10 million annually. The government of New South Wales says the prison is necessary in order to reduce crowding and improve services and rehabilitation for the 284 inmates of Mulawa, Sydney’s only maximum security prison for women.

New South Wales, Australia’s most populous state, has 480 women prisoners in two facilities, or gaols. The government says the new prison will house a transferred population, but critics say it’s part of a get-tough-on-crime drive to build more prisons nationwide. Opponents of the jail include representatives of the justice system, parliamentarians, religious groups, students, indigenous people’s and immigrants’ advocates and academics.

A date for ground breaking has not been set; opponents hope that a furor could kill the project. Nevertheless, the growing opposition may reflect a change in public attitudes about prisons in general.

“Raising public awareness and changing community stereotypes about prisoners are a vital part of this campaign,” said Kerry Nettle, spokesperson of the campaign to stop the women’s prison. “When people in the community receive this information, they recognize that something needs to be done.”

Millions Spent on Prisons Is Millions Not Spent on Services

A new jail costing $42 million and $50,000 per prisoner per year is money not spent on housing, education, legal aid, drug rehabilitation and employment services, argues Renee Lees, spokesperson for the Sydney University Women’s Action Collective.

“It is the lack of these very same services,” she said, “which lead to the social conditions that lead women to get jailed.”

Opposition isn’t limited to activists. The New South Wales Parliamentary Select Committee on the increase in prisoner populations last summer unanimously recommended a moratorium on the women’s prison construction and called for the government to conduct a cost-benefit analysis of the facility.

The government dismissed the recommendation, saying that increased jail populations are a national and international phenomenon and that planning for the new prison was well underway.

The new facility would be Australia’s ninth women-only prison. An additional 15 “mixed” correctional facilities throughout the country house both men and women.

During the past decade, the number of women prisoners has soared to an all-time high. Over the past 10 years, the number of women in Australian jails has almost doubled, from 607 in 1991 to 1,124 in 1999, according to the Canberra-based Australian Institute of Criminology, a government body. Figures for 2000 were not yet available.

Numbers of Indigenous Women Jailed Increased 262 Percent

During the same period, incarcerations of indigenous women increased at a rate of 262 percent. They now constitute 24 percent of all imprisoned women. The imprisonment rate for indigenous men has increased by approximately 30 percent over the same period. Overall, indigenous people, according to the Australian institute of Criminology, are 14 times more likely to be imprisoned than non-indigenous people.

The increasing rate of women’s incarceration in Australia has coincided with the rise of law and order as state election issues, much as they are in the United States. The current New South Wales Labor Government was elected last March on a get-tough-on-crime platform.

Because of this trend toward incarceration, the number of women in prison increased by 48 percent over the last two years. The Sydney University Women’s Action Collective sees the trend as the direct result of government cutbacks in social services in New South Wales.

Despite robust economic growth, Australia’s conservative “economic rationalist” climate has meant that federal and state funding for social services has been drastically cut in the past four years. Hard hit are job training and employment services, drug and alcohol treatment, education, housing, welfare assistance and women’s domestic violence shelter programs.

Vast Majority of Imprisoned Women Have Drug Problems

An estimated 70 percent to 90 percent of all incarcerated women are believed to have a drug problem. Of New South Wales’ imprisoned women, 71.6 percent have been incarcerated for non-violent crimes, including fraud and misappropriation, property and drug-related offenses. Nationwide, 69 percent of imprisoned women have been convicted of property and drug offenses.

Lee Rhiannon, New South Wales Greens Party member of parliament and deputy chair of the select committee on prison populations, said that the most marginalized in any community are over-represented in its prisons. Australia’s Aboriginal, or indigenous, people make up only 2 percent of the population, yet they are over-represented in its jails.

“Let’s remember,” Rhiannon added, “the select committee inquiry found that 20 percent of women inmates have an intellectual disability and that indigenous women make up as much as 31 percent of women prisoners.”

Women from non-English speaking backgrounds often “serve the loneliest sentences,” says advocate Nettle. Language difficulties and unfamiliarity with Australian law also results in high populations of these women in remand prisons–in detention until trial,” Nettle said, “although levels of conviction are low.”

Currently, of the 480 women in New South Wales prisons, one-fourth are awaiting trial according to official figures. The Women’s Action Collective said some women have waited for as long as 12 months to go to trial.

Nadya Stani ([email protected]) is a free-lance writer, specializing in international, social and cultural politics. She is currently working with a museum on the history of the sex industry in western Sydney.


Mom Who Bought Son’s Condoms Is Cleared

(WOMENSENEWS)–A county judge in Wisconsin has dismissed the felony charge against the woman who bought condoms for her sexually active 12-year-old son. She had been charged with failing to stop the sexual assault of a child.

The Sauk County district attorney petitioned Judge Guy Reynolds to drop the charge–failure to “prevent her child from being sexually abused,” the Wisconsin State Journal reported Monday.

“The state did not charge (the mother) because she discussed birth control with her son or how to use condoms,” District Attorney Patricia Barrett said in a statement about dropping the charges. “The state charged (her) for her lack of action, which exposed her 12-year-old son to an unreasonable risk of being the victim of first-degree sexual assault in the future.”

Barrett said last week that the 33-year-old Baraboo, Wis., woman was charged because she knew her 12-year-old son was having sex and did not report it. The boy earlier told police he was having sex with his 15-year-old girlfriend.

In Wisconsin, children 12 and younger cannot legally consent to sexual intercourse. Sex with children that young is considered sexual assault.

The mother had faced a possible 15 years in prison if convicted of failing to stop the sexual assault of a child. She told police he had known her son was having sex for about a year. She said she bought him two dozen condoms, which he kept in a pencil box.

“The state was concerned about the protection and needs of her son,” Barrett said in her statement. Those concerns have been met, she said without elaboration, and the charge was dropped.

The news of the case prompted a debate on childhood sexuality, parental roles and birth control.