A publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism, University of Melbourne

Housing cuts blamed for rising Koori women prisoner numbers

The number of Koori women in Victorian prisons will continue to rise, according to an Indigenous affairs advocate, despite a recent high-level investigation that made 29 recommendations to improve the situation.

Words by Karen Coombs
 

Amanda George, who chairs the women’s prison support service Flat Out Collective, says little progress has been made since the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission published the findings of its investigation two years ago.

“The situation is in crisis and will only get worse if more is not done,” Ms George told The Citizen.

The report revealed that the number of female Koori prisoners had doubled to 28 in the five years to 2012 and was increasing at a much sharper rate than for both non-Koori women and Koori men.

The number had since risen to 38, according to the latest prison census, released last year, and was currently believed to be 43  — around 10 per cent of the female prison population. The figures include women on remand awaiting trial or sentencing.

The commission’s inquiry identified an urgent need for post-release accommodation as the lack of appropriate housing was found to be a key factor in re-offending and one of the reasons women were being denied bail, even for minor crimes.

But funding cuts to housing programs and delays in new government projects were adding strain to services trying to support what the report described as one of the “most disadvantaged groups in Victoria”.

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“One of the big problems has been [cuts] to housing services that support Aboriginal women, not necessarily Aboriginal organisations, but cuts to post-release housing programs,” said Ms George. “This puts women who are already disadvantaged in accessing these sorts of services, right behind the eight ball.”

Aboriginal Housing Victoria recently received funding from corrections authorities to build six self-contained units for transitional housing for Koori women after their release from prison, but these are unlikely to be ready for another two years.

The Office of Housing, which manages public housing in Victoria, has identified land to build on but Aboriginal Housing chief executive Jenny Samms said the group had yet to meet government officials to get things moving.

Plans for the units, which would be the first dedicated post-release homes for Koori women in Victoria, were first unveiled in October last year, but were delayed by the change of government.

Ms Samms said it would also take time to gain necessary approvals from neighbours to build the units. She also cautioned that the project of just six units could not be “all things to all people”.

“One of the big problems has been [cuts] to housing services that support Aboriginal women . . . cuts to post-release housing programs. This puts women who are already disadvantaged in accessing these sorts of services, right behind the eight ball.” — Amanda George, Flat Out Collective

“It’s not going to be the entire integrated package of everything that Koori women in contact with the justice system need,” she said. “If people get out of jail and go into one of our houses and other support services are not in place, you can rest assured that the housing will be unstable.”

Ms Samms said providing housing was only “one component of [the women’s] broader needs”.

She said there was an assumption that once people were provided with housing, everything would be fine, but stable housing did not “just happen” because a person had a home.

“If people are in an emotional, economic and social state where they haven’t got the capacity to manage housing, the tenancy by definition is often unstable and will often fail.

“You haven’t got stable housing if your drug problem is out of control and if you’ve got people coming to your house who are ex-partners, or whatever, and destroying the house. [That fact] gets overlooked all the time.”

According to the Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission report, almost 90 Koori women went through the prison system each year. More than half of these women had a history of prior offending and imprisonment.

The investigation found that once the women had contact with the prison system they were likely to re-offend. Intensive support post-release, however, was found to be what would help divert them from re-offending.

Although some services were extended beyond prison, the findings showed that Koori women struggled to navigate and access post-release services, which were found to be fragmented and not “culturally appropriate”.

“If people are in an emotional, economic and social state where they haven’t got the capacity to manage housing, the tenancy by definition is often unstable and will often fail.” — Jenny Samms, chief executive, Aboriginal Housing

The report found that Koori women needed a place where services were brought together into the one ‘hub’. This included drug and alcohol services and intensive support to help offenders meet their parole requirements and community corrections orders.

In the meantime, Koori women often returned to accommodation that was not safe for them.

As part of attempts to bring together housing and support services for Koori women, Aboriginal Housing is joining forces with the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service, which will provide welfare assistance to the people housed in the new units.

Annette Vickery, the deputy chief executive of the legal service, said that if the model of combining post-release housing with intensive welfare assistance was successful, the group would look to expand coverage.

“If this proposal works and we can build an evidence base, we are hopeful that it will expand,” she said. “It’s fairly innovative and Corrections Victoria are being quite brave in wanting to do something different.”

According to the report, Koori women’s health and wellbeing depended on “a strong connection to culture” and was a “crucial protective factor”, but imprisonment and contact with the legal system often damaged the women’s cultural connections.

One of the report’s recommendations was for the establishment of “culturally and gender appropriate” services where the majority of programs were run by Koori women.

The findings suggested this would help women reconnect with their culture and ease their return into their communities, a process the report found to be essential for lowering the risk of re-offending.

Ms George, of the Flat Out Collective, said programs did not necessarily need to be run by an Indigenous organisation, as some women wanted choice, but the people running and designing such programs needed to understand the pressures facing Indigenous women.

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“There is a lack of services that are culturally appropriate for Aboriginal women,” she added.

“Culturally appropriate means that the people working in [the services] understand the legacy of the Stolen Generations and forced removal, the legacy of colonisation and all those things that leave deep scars on the community and on the women particularly.

“Aboriginal women have suffered extremely high levels of family violence and abuse as children, and many of them have been through the juvenile justice system.

“Very few have had employment and have experienced all kinds of discrimination in [gaining] access to services.

“Many of them have significant mental health issues and have acquired brain injuries as a consequence of family violence.”

Eighty per cent of Koori women in prison were mothers, according to the Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission report, with the grief and trauma suffered by being separated from their children and families placing profound stress on the women and their communities.

Prison workers reported that the matters the women most wanted to talk about while in jail were to do with child protection. For some, the inability to reconnect with their children drove them to reoffend and return to prison.

“If you’re getting a sentence longer than 12 months now, you are facing having your children permanently removed from you. Women in prison, particularly, have an incredible fear of their children being removed,” Ms George said.

“People can have a drug addiction and still be good parents; they just need support in how to keep their family together and support around how to be able to involve other people in their lives without the fear of having their children removed.

“There is a desperate need for more funding for services, not the cutting of services that’s happening across the board in homelessness and drug and alcohol services.”

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