Imagining abolition

Thinking outside the prison bars

Proportionally, we are the most incarcerated people on the planet. We are not an innately criminal people. Our children are alienated from their families at unprecedented rates. This cannot be because we have no love for them. And our youth languish in detention in obscene numbers. They should be our hope for the future.
Uluru Statement from the Heart


PRISONS HAVE RAVAGED Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families and communities. In the last two decades, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and girls have been imprisoned at alarming rates across Australia. Pipelined from out-of-home ‘care’ to youth prisons to homelessness, poverty and adult prisons, women and girls are trapped in a cycle of government failure.

This cycle is a direct continuation of colonisation. The legal system in Australia is built on the genocide and dispossession of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. Since invasion, the legal system has operated as a mechanism to order, control, regulate and dispose of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander lives and bodies.[i] Representations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples as ‘a dying race’ justified the exploitation of country for the benefit of a privileged few.[ii] In contemporary times, the project of colonialism has been re-framed as ‘protection’ and ‘recognition’, but child removals and imprisonment continue to rise.[iii] The recent wave of coronial inquests, inquiries and royal commissions has done nothing to change the structural racism that is the bedrock of Australia’s criminal injustice system.

The ‘prison–industrial complex’ is thriving. This term refers to the reality that an ever-growing list of companies, organisations and individuals benefit from more prisons and more law enforcement.[iv] It’s no secret that punishment is big business for governments, private companies and, increasingly, organisations and individuals in the welfare industry. When the Queensland Government announced a $200 million expansion to Capricornia Correctional Centre, the men’s prison in Rockhampton, Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk stated:[v]

It will deliver over 100 jobs to the central Queensland region during construction and more than 70 ongoing jobs after it is commissioned, not to mention the indirect jobs it will generate in the region to keep the prison running, including for food and other service providers.

Youth and women’s prisons are chronically overcrowded, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and girls are massively over-represented. Nationwide, one third of the women in prison are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women – 1,106 women at the 2017 prisoner census conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics.[vi] On an average day, over 60 per cent of the girls in youth prisons are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders (fifty-one out of seventy-nine).[vii] Most of those girls are in Queensland. It is a horrendous indictment on Australia, as a wealthy country, that it is easier to leave seventy-nine girls in prison each day rather than find the resources to support them in the free world.

Sisters Inside is an independent community organisation that advocates for the collective human rights of criminalised women and girls in Queensland and addresses gaps in the services available to them. Since 1992, we have worked to expose injustice in prisons and other coercive institutions.

In prison, women are subject to sexual assaults perpetrated by the state in the form of strip searching. This is justified as necessary to stem the flow of drugs and contraband into prison – to ‘protect’ women from harm. There is no accountability for state-sanctioned violence. Even though prisons are required to keep records of every strip search by legislation, there is no public information about the overuse of this brutal practice. Queensland Corrective Services refused to release de-identified statistical data about strip searching to Sisters Inside, requiring us to make a Right to Information application for access.[viii]

At Queensland’s largest women’s prison, the state sexually assaulted women 12,170 times in 2016.[ix] On 3,376 occasions, women were sexually assaulted after contact visits with their children, family and friends – the only contraband found was three cotton buds and a non-prison-issued singlet. This is how women pay for being able to hug and kiss their children. As the Victorian Ombudsman found in her recent report, drugs and contraband clearly enter the prison through other means. There is no justification for the state sexually assaulting women in prison. It is nothing more than social control.

Pregnant women sleep on mattresses on the floor, attend medical appointments in shackles and give birth in prison cells. Despite official prison policy allowing women with children under four years old to apply to have their children stay in prison with them, very few women get approval for this, including women who give birth in prison. Newborn babies are almost always removed directly from the hospital to out-of-home ‘care’, with ad hoc provision made for breastfeeding and ongoing contact. These decisions are made by prisons at the instigation of the Department of Child Safety. The ‘best interests of the child’ is reduced to a hollow slogan; removing newborn babies from their mothers is not about attachment, it is about punishment. As soon as a child is removed by the department, it is practically impossible for criminalised mothers to prove themselves as a ‘willing and able’ parent.

Women with serious mental health issues are deemed ‘difficult’ and locked away in the bowels of the prison. Women in solitary confinement are lucky to spend more than one or two hours out of their cells each day and do not get access to direct sunlight. Use of shackles and spit hoods is common practice in adult prisons but unregulated in Queensland’s legislation. Women are further criminalised in prison for alleged assaults on officers, continuously delaying their chances of parole.

Almost all girls in youth prisons have been sexually assaulted and, as a result, suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.[x] It is not only domestic and family violence; Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and girls experience high rates of violence at the hands of police and ‘carers’ in the child protection system. Women and girls defending themselves against violence become targets of law enforcement. Activists in the United States are starting to refer to this phenomenon as the ‘sexual abuse to prison pipeline’.[xi] When society relies on a framework of punishment to address violence, prisons become the default response to ‘violent’ and ‘uncontrollable’ Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and girls.

Breach of domestic violence protection orders was the tenth most common offence type for women in prison in both 2014–15 and 2015–16 (either on remand or sentence).[xii] In 2015–16, women in prison had two hundred and twenty-seven offences for these breaches on their records. We know from our Supreme Court Bail Program in Townsville that many of those women are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women from remote communities. The same women are survivors of extreme personal violence and abuse. But the legal system only protects ‘good victims’; it has never protected Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women.

The same patterns of personal and institutional violence are repeated in prison. Queensland Corrective Services does not ‘correct’; it re-traumatises women. There is no youth ‘justice’ in prison for girls. As the academic and political activist Angela Davis puts it in The Meaning of Freedom (City Light Books, 2012):[xiii]

Our criminal [in]justice system sends increasing numbers of people to prison by first robbing them of housing, healthcare, education and welfare, and then punishing them when they participate in underground economies. What should we think about a system that will, on the one hand, sacrifice social services, human compassion, housing and decent schools, mental health care and jobs, while on the other hand developing an ever larger and ever more profitable prison system that subjects ever larger numbers of people to daily regimes of coercion and abuse?

In Australia, we have seen repeated funding cuts to the social services system and increased surveillance of the poorest and most marginalised people in our community. Eligibility criteria for the Parenting Payment have been restricted, having a serious impact on single parents (who are overwhelmingly mothers). The Newstart Allowance has not been increased in more than twenty years. As at 30 June 2017, there were 15,658 households on the social-housing register waiting for a home; private rental properties are completely unaffordable for women on fixed incomes. Women are required to engage with numerous services to meet their Centrelink, parole and child protection obligations, but many of these services deem women ‘too challenging’ and cut off support. There are only a handful of places in rehabilitation services for criminalised women and there is almost nothing for girls. Mental health services are inadequate for women and girls with complex needs. Young girls are criminalised in residential ‘care’ for incidents that would never necessitate a police response in a ‘normal’ home. The system heaps trauma on trauma.


TRAUMA UPON TRAUMA being heaped on women and girls is what we at Sisters Inside mean when we talk about the cycle of government failure. Non-government organisations are complicit in this failure too. ‘Helping’ criminalised women and girls has become a multi-million-dollar industry. But women and girls who are too ‘difficult’ for health and welfare services ultimately end up in prison. Women are trapped in the revolving door between prison and ‘services’ that cannot meet their real needs. One cab charge voucher and a night in a hostel is not sufficient support for a woman leaving prison after sixteen months under supervision. We must not keep pretending that programs and prisons can ‘rehabilitate’ the homeless and the poor.

It is a mistake to think that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander grandmothers, mothers and families have not been strong advocates for solutions to violence, child removals, injustice and racism. The more important question is: why haven’t we been listening?

We have all been socialised to see the current order of the world as ‘normal’; but there is nothing ‘normal’ about rising numbers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and girls in prison. There is nothing ‘normal’ about prisons as the default response to women and girls who are poor, homeless and victims of violence. There is nothing ‘normal’ about violence perpetrated by police, prison officers or ‘carers’ in the child protection system. We must not accept the status quo.

Footage of the inhuman treatment of Ms Dhu by police, shortly before her death in custody in 2014, prompted national protests for justice. Images of Dylan Voller on Four Corners shackled in a spit hood sparked outrage and a royal commission that made over two-hundred and twenty recommendations to address the harm against children in the Northern Territory’s youth prisons and child protection systems. Exposure of individual examples of extreme abuse and violence are powerful, and can galvanise us into momentary action. But to truly address the over-imprisonment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and children, we must confront the structural racism at the heart of our legal system. It is not enough to tinker at the edges. After decades of reform of prisons, police and the child protection system, we are still seeing the same issues – the massive and rising over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and girls. Reform of a broken system will never work. We must think outside, and beyond, the prison bars.


IT COSTS AROUND $107,000 to keep one woman in prison in Queensland for a year.[xiv] Imagine if, instead of spending that money on prisons, it was given directly to each woman – to find safe and affordable housing, to support their children, to pursue education or to find stable employment. Imagine if every Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander woman’s descendants were compensated for her stolen wages. Imagine if we funded accommodation and independent support workers for each of the seventy-nine girls in youth prison. Imagine if Medicare provided free dental care for all Australians, including women and children in prison. Imagine if First Nations languages were taught in our schools. Imagine if every mother in prison was provided social housing that would accommodate her children and personalised support to address her trauma. Imagine if we raised the minimum age of criminal responsibility to at least fifteen years old.

At its core, prison abolition is an imaginative project. It requires us to imagine a world where we do not rely on police, prisons and child protection authorities to resolve and address violence and harm in our communities. In the meantime, we must work to resist the daily injustice of the current system and advocate for ‘non-reformist reforms’[xv] that make genuine progress towards justice and self-determination.

As abolitionists, Sisters Inside does not speak for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and girls. We work and walk alongside First Nations women and girls to dismantle the prison-industrial complex. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women have always had a seat at our management table. There are four pillars to our work at Sisters Inside: service delivery to provide direct support to criminalised women and children; policy and advocacy to address systemic issues and injustices; community education about abolition and our unique model of support for criminalised women and girls; and a law firm connected to Sisters Inside to provide legal representation for women and girls in prison.

Through our work, we support women and girls to challenge representations of themselves as ‘violent’, ‘lazy’, ‘drunks’, ‘criminals’, ‘drug addicts’ and ‘bad mothers’. The women we work with (and for) are strong, creative, funny, capable and loving mothers, and are working hard to survive in a system that is intent on undermining their life chances. We have been providing a sexual assault counselling service for women in prison since 1994; there has been no real increase in our funding even though the number of women in prison has more than doubled. In response to the soaring numbers of women on remand, we assist women to apply for bail in the Supreme Court of Queensland. We support mothers in prison and in the free world to maintain contact with their children and reunify with them (whatever that means for each family). We support women to find housing and access essential services so they can stay in the free world. We assist criminalised girls and boys to stay in housing and school so they are not pipelined into youth prisons. We run an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artist group for girls and young women to connect with each other and with culture. We also run a dance and cultural group for young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander boys.

I do not expect to witness the abolition of prisons in my lifetime. Dismantling racist and capitalist systems and building new institutions to address poverty, homelessness and harm cannot be achieved by one person in one generation. This work is a collective struggle and I believe that a movement for genuine change is possible. It starts with listening to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and girls, respecting their resistance and survival, and prioritising their voices and needs. If the brutal realities of racism and the over-imprisonment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women do not make you angry, why not? If you remain silent in the face of institutional racism, violence, poverty and homelessness, what will it take to move you to furious action? We owe it to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women to answer these questions. None of us will be free until they are free.



[i] Mbembe, A 2003, ‘Necropolitics’, Public Culture, vol. 15, no. 1, pp. 11-40, pp. 27-28; Wolfe, P 2006, ‘Settler colonialism and the elimination of the native’, Journal of Genocide Research, vol. 8, no. 4, pp. 387-409, p 387.

[ii] Pascoe, B 2014, Dark Emu. Black seeds: agriculture or accident?, Magabala Books, Broome.

Reynolds, H 2013, Forgotten War, NewSouth Publishing, Sydney.

[iii] Coulthard, G 2014, Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.

Coulthard, G 2007, ‘Subjects of Empire: Indigenous Peoples and the “Politics of Recognition” in Canada’, Contemporary Political Theory, vol. 6, no. 4, pp 437-460.

Watson, I 2007, ‘Aboriginal Women's Laws and Lives: How Might We Keep Growing the Law’, The Australian Feminist Law Journal, vol. 26, pp 95-109.

[iv] Davis, A 1998, ‘Masked Racism: Reflections on the Prison Industrial Complex’, Colorlines, 10 September, <>.

[v] Queensland Government 2017, $200 million Capricornia Correctional Centre expansion boost jobs, prison capacity, media release, 31 January, <>.

[vi] Australian Bureau of Statistics 2017, Prisoners in Australia, cat. no. 4517.0, ABS, Canberra, <[email protected]/mf/4517.0>.

[vii] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2017, Youth Justice in Australia 2015-16, cat. no. AUS 211, Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra.

[viii] In the same request, we were denied access to local level policies and procedures relating to strip searches because these documents contain ‘details of confidential security processes and procedures’ and disclosure of this information would put the ‘security and safety of custodial centres’ at risk.

[ix] This data was provided by the Department of Justice and Attorney-General to Sisters Inside under Right to Information request reference: 171000.

[x] Department of Justice and Attorney General n.d., Youth Detention Centre Demand Management Strategy 2013-2023, p 4. Released to the ABC under Right to Information laws.

Wordsworth, M 2014, ‘Qld youth detention centres operating “permanently over safe capacity” and system in crisis, draft report says’, ABC News, 17 September, <>.

[xi] Martin, M 2017, ‘Advocates say Cyntoia Brown’s case is part of the ‘sexual abuse-to-prison’ pipeline’, KUOW, 3 December, <>.

[xii] Data provided by Queensland Corrective Services, Performance and Reporting Unit to Sisters Inside on 13 December 2016 in response to an informal data request.

[xiii] Davis, A 2012, The Meaning of Freedom and Other Difficult Dialogues, City Light Books, San Francisco, p. 62.

[xiv] Productivity Commission 2018, Report on Government Services 2018, Australian Government Publishing Services, Canberra.

[xv] Berger, D, Kaba, M & Stein, D 2017, ‘What Abolitionists Do’, Jacobin Magazine, 24 August, <>.

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