The national tragedy of female incarceration

The Women’s Policy Action Tank recently published a special issue of the Good Policy newsletter, exploring three areas of policy with a gender lens: women and the criminal justice system, Indigenous women, and women’s experience of employment. Each topic is explored using a dialectical approach, in which two authors approach a topic from a different angles. We will be publishing the paired articles on our blog over the coming three weeks. This week: Exploring the gendered impacts of incarceration on women. This article is a companion piece to Women leaving prison and the impacts of debt, by Christopher Trotter. 

Jacki Holland, Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand ( @JackiKHolland )


Many of the women in prison in Australia today have come into contact with the criminal justice system after committing minor, non-violent offences linked to personal circumstances of poverty, hardship and, overwhelmingly, trauma. Their incarceration has little to do with protecting the safety of the public, and will do little to prevent the future perpetration of crimes of a similar nature. The isolation of these women from society may, however, result in a range of negative consequences that extend beyond the primary purposes attributed to imprisonment of punishment, deterrence, rehabilitation, denunciation and/or incapacitation.[1]

In line with trends in many countries worldwide,[2] female imprisonment rates in Australia have been on a dramatic upward trajectory in recent decades, consistently outpacing growth rates for men. A growing body of researchers argue these trends can be attributed, in large part, to the feminisation of poverty and economic marginalisation of women.[3]

True justice isn't blind.  Systemic gender inequities maintain women’s vulnerability to known risk factors for female criminality. 

True justice isn't blind.  Systemic gender inequities maintain women’s vulnerability to known risk factors for female criminality. 

Since 2000, the number of women in prison has more than doubled,[4] and the female imprisonment rate has risen from 19 per 100,000 adults to 33 per 100,000.[5] Despite Indigenous Australians comprising only three per cent of the overall Australian population, 34 per cent of female prisoners are Aboriginal women,[6] making Aboriginal women the fastest-growing cohort.[7] It is specious to assume these escalating figures are explained by a corresponding rise in offending rates amongst female Australians.[8] Whilst there have been some increases in criminal prosecutions against women, the above figures are indicative of converging social and legal policies, and enforcement practices[9] that disregard the structural and social causes of women’s offending and gendered differences in the experience of poverty, unemployment, compromised mental health, addiction, housing insecurity, violence and abuse.[10] Systemic gender inequities maintain women’s vulnerability to these known risk factors for female criminality, and simplistic tough-on-crime responses deal ineffectively with these difficult social problems.

In our society generally, women are more prone than men to have insufficient resources to meet their material needs.[11] Women are far more likely to head single parent families;[12] have caring responsibilities for other family members; and to take time out of, or limit their hours of, paid employment to satisfy these unpaid obligations. Gendered differences in employment leave women susceptible to economic insecurity with reduced capacity to meet the costs of living, much less respond to financial shocks (see, for example, articles by Maury and MacDonald in this issue).[13] Women are also far more likely to have been subject to violence and abuse, particularly from a partner or person known to them.[14] Where women’s gendered experiences intersect with other marginalising characteristics such as race, disability, socioeconomic status, or other identities, vulnerability to financial, housing and other disadvantage is often increased. The combined effects of disadvantage and circumstances of victimisation, poverty and trauma increase the risk of women’s lives intersecting with the criminal justice system.[15]

The profile of the female prison population is characterised by overrepresentation of such deeply disadvantaged and victimised women, testifying to the need for more effective strategies to prevent and address women’s criminality.[16] Mental illness, substance abuse, financial hardship and personal histories involving homelessness are far more prevalent amongst female offenders than their male counterparts.[17] Debt is also a significant issue for female prisoners.[18] Over 85 per cent of female inmates in some Australian jurisdictions are parents of dependent children; most of these head single parent families.[19] Female prisoners exhibit much higher levels of previous trauma and victimisation than men.[20] The vast majority are survivors of sexual, physical and emotional abuse, and most have been subject to multiple forms of abuse.[21] For example, between 57 and 90 per cent have experienced child sexual abuse and other forms of victimisation, 89 per cent have a history of sexual abuse, and as many as 98 per cent have experienced violence.[22] Such difficulties and trauma can have significant impact on the trajectory of a woman’s life and can drive criminality.[23]  

For the small numbers of violent and persistent female offenders, prison is an appropriate and just intervention, but imprisonment and exclusion from the community is not a fitting fix for non-violent criminality where marginalisation, poverty and disadvantage are at the heart of offending behaviour, or where trauma and abuse underlie a woman’s trajectory towards offending behaviours. As a sentencing option designed centuries ago in response to poverty and male offending,[24] prison seldom supports women to resolve their personal, social and economic difficulties. For women experiencing such difficulties, who pose no safety risk to others, there is great need for responses and supports quite different to a typical prison environment.

The prison experience is more likely to entrench disadvantage, and, as an environment designed to assert power and control,[25] can be re-traumatising for women with personal histories of victimisation. It can result in detrimental outcomes that are psychological, social and financial – diminishing financial wellbeing, and contributing to poorer health, reduced household resources, loss of employment and loss of housing and belongings. Prison increases the likelihood of family and relationship breakdown.[26] Mental and physical health are detrimentally impacted, with consequent effects upon employability, relationship stability and parenting practices.[27] Women generally respond differently than men to correctional intervention,[28] with factors such as anxiety about the welfare and care of children, and concern about losing the right to spend time with children, disrupting rehabilitation efforts.[29]

Upon release from prison, related legal problems can emerge or resurface, adding to difficulties, inhibiting reintegration[30] or leading to recidivism. This is true of all prisoners, but studies suggest post-release support for women in the areas of housing, health and welfare support is particularly inadequate, resulting in hardship, recidivism, reimprisonment, or even unnatural death.[31] Women who have exited prison are more exposed to financial hardship as a result of debt (see the related article by Trotter, this issue), as they are more likely to have sole parental responsibility for dependents, are often reliant on welfare services and frequently in critical need of securing housing for their family upon release.[32] Risk of post-release homelessness can be exacerbated for female prisoners, who are less likely to have a partner on the outside maintaining the home and family, providing continuity and a stable base upon release. Such difficulties can re-activate circumstances that trigger renewed connection with the criminal justice system. For these women, the imperative ought to be to provide alternative pathways away from the criminal justice system and to address the issues which led to their offending behaviour.

Whilst there is inherent appeal in the notion that justice is blind to difference, there is need for addressing structural and systemic issues that accelerate women’s interactions with the criminal justice system, compound their difficulties in accessing justice and cause their experience of prison and post-release to be particularly detrimental. The escalating rates of female imprisonment should not be dealt with by justice responses alone, but by systemic policy responses that address the underlying factors contributing to gender inequality. Interventions should incorporate a focus upon women’s capacity for independence and long-term financial security, trial justice reinvestment models that can mitigate women’s increasing interactions with the criminal justice system, and introduce alternatives to imprisonment that reflect deeper understandings of the systemic drivers of female offending. Prison systems themselves should consider and respond sensitively to the unique gender-specific need for informed trauma support amongst the large numbers of female prisoners who have been victims of violence and abuse. Where the nature of female offending is minor and non-violent, where the offender does not pose a risk to the community, and where the offender has parental responsibilities, community sanctions rather than a tough-on-crime approach should be used as an alternative to imprisonment. These alternatives can mitigate the very particular impacts imprisonment has on women and their families both during and following incarceration periods.


[1] Baldry, E. & Sotiri, M. (2014). Social work and prisons. In Rice, S. & Day, A. Social Work in the Shadow of the Law. Federation Press, Leichhardt, p. 81; Sentencing Act 1991 (Vic) s5(1).

[2] Baroness J. Corston (2007). The Corston Report: A review of women with particular vulnerabilities in the criminal justice system. London: Home Office; United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Handbook on Women’s Imprisonment, 2nd ed., New York, March 2014.

[3] Sentencing Council of Australia. Gender Differences in Sentencing Outcomes, July 2010.

[4] Australian Bureau of Statistics, Prisoners in Australia, 2016.

[5] Australian Bureau of Statistics, Prisoners in Australia, 2000; Australian Bureau of Statistics, Prisoners in Australia, 2016.

[6] https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/law/aboriginal-prison-rates - axzz4dRbwhGMF

[7] http://www.lawcouncil.asn.au/lawcouncil/images/II_Discussion_Paper_23_11.pdf; Flat Out Inc. Submission to the Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee Inquiry into the Value of a Justice Reinvestment Approach to Criminal Justice in Australia, 15 March 2013.

[8] Naylor, B. The Evidence is In: You Can’t Link Imprisonment to Crime Rates. The Conversation, 23 April 2015.

[9] Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee. Value of a justice reinvestment approach to criminal justice in Australia, June 2013, p 3.

[10] Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee. Value of a justice reinvestment approach to criminal justice in Australia, June 2013, p 3.

[11] Corrie, T. (2016). Policy Position Paper: Economic Security for Women. Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand, Abbotsford.

[12] In 2011, 83 per cent of one-parent families were headed by a woman. Australian Bureau of Statistics (2011). Household and Family Projections Australia 2011 to 2036.

[13] Corrie, T. (2016). Economic Security for Survivors of Domestic and Family Violence. Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand, Abbostsford.

[14] National Council to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children (NCRVWC). Background paper to time for action: The National Council's plan for Australia to reduce violence against women and their children, 2009–2021. Canberra: Australian Government. http://www.fahcsia.gov.au/sa/women/pubs/violence/np_time_for_action/background/Pages/default.aspx; http://anrows.org.au/sites/default/files/Violence-Against-Australian-Women-Key-Statistics.pdf

[15] http://www.lawfoundation.net.au/ljf/site/templates/UpdatingJustice/$file/UJ_33_Crime_in_context_FINAL.pdf; Stathopoulos, M. & Quadara, A. (2001). Women as offenders, women as victims: The role of corrections in supporting women with histories of sexual abuse. Corrective Services NSW.

[16] Covington, S. & Bloom, B. (2003). Gendered Justice: Women in the Criminal Justice System, In Bloom, B. (Ed.) Gendered Justice: Addressing Female Offenders. Carolina Academic Press.

[17] Department of Justice (Victoria). Better Pathways in Practice: The Women’s Correctional Services Framework 2005-2009; Victorian Ombudsman, Investigation into the rehabilitation and reintegration of prisoners in Victoria, September 2015.

[18] Trotter, C. & Flynn, C. (2016). Literature review: Best practice with female offenders. Monash University Criminal Justice Research Consortium, Victoria, Australia.

[19] Anti-Discrimination Commission Queensland. Women in Prison Report, March 2006, 119.

[20] Department of Justice (Victoria). Better Pathways in Practice: The Women’s Correctional Services Framework 2005-2009.

[21] Federation of Community Legal Centres (2014). Smart Justice: More prisons are not the answer to reducing crime; Stathopoulos, M. et al. (2012). Addressing women’s victimisation histories in custodial settings. Australian Institute of Family Studies.

[22]Stathopoulos, M. et al. (2012). Addressing women’s victimisation histories in custodial settings. Australian Institute of Family Studies; Kilroy, D. When will they see the real us? Women in prisons (PDF 131 KB). Paper presented at the Women in Corrections: Staff and Clients Conference, Adelaide, 2000, http://www.sistersinside.com.au/media/whenwillyouseetherealus.pdf

[23] WIPAN Forum NSW, Women in Prison, August 2014.

[24] Hulls, R. & Campbell, E. Should we be locking people up in prisons at all? 9 August 2016, http://www.powertopersuade.org.au/blog/shouldwelockpeopleinprisons

[25] Stathopoulos, M. et al. (2012). Addressing women’s victimisation histories in custodial settings. Australian Institute of Family Studies.

[26] Wildeman, C. & Western, B. (2010). Research Findings on the Consequences of Imprisonment for Fragile Families. The Future of Children Journal, Vol 20, Number 2, Fall 2010.

[27] Wildeman, C. & Western, B. (2010). Research Findings on the Consequences of Imprisonment for Fragile Families. The Future of Children Journal, Vol 20, Number 2, Fall 2010.

[28] Department of Justice (Victoria). Better Pathways in Practice: The Women’s Correctional Services Framework 2005-2009.

[29] Law and Justice Foundation. A sector-wide approach to the legal needs of Victorian Prisoners, August 2015, 7.

[30] Law and Justice Foundation. A sector-wide approach to the legal needs of Victorian Prisoners, August 2015, 7.

[31] Segrave, M. & Carlton, B. (2010). Women, Trauma, Criminalisation and Imprisonment. Current Issues in Criminal Justice, Vol 22, No 2, 288.

[32] Stringer, A. (2000). Women Inside in Debt: The Prison and Debt Project. Paper presented at the Women in Corrections: Staff and Clients Conference, 2000.