Sarah* was released from prison three weeks ago after serving a 12 month sentence for a series of offences, including shoplifting and driving without a licence. She wasn’t the only one who paid for her crimes.
When Sarah was taken into custody her 5-year-old daughter was taken by the Department of Human Services to a relative’s house. Sarah’s two older sons, aged 14 and 19 years at the time of her arrest, remained in the house that she shared with her partner. The boys didn’t feel safe in the house and soon fled.
“Nobody cares what happens to the children you leave behind. My kids borrowed money off people, slept on couches when they could. They had no income, they were starving,” Sarah says in tears.
“My son got really badly hurt and needed a plate in his head. No one was there to look after him.”
When Sarah was arrested she didn’t have an opportunity to go home and make arrangements for the care of her children.
“I went out to get Hungry Jacks for my son and I never came home,” she says.
Kate Colvin, Policy Manager at Jesuit Social Services, says the swift removal of mothers into the justice system can be very traumatic for children.
“If you were going to go away for three months, you would spend weeks, if not months, preparing your children for your absence. But if the police pick you up and remand you in custody, you are gone into the prison system and it’s very difficult to make arrangements for children,” Colvin says.
“We often leave children in a very precarious situation. They could be taken into the care of the state or they could have arrangements made for them by the woman’s violent partner who may or may not be their father.”
The number of women being incarcerated in Australia has more than doubled in recent years. Most of these women are mothers. In fact, two-thirds of women in prison are the primary carers of children. Eighty per cent of incarcerated indigenous women are mothers of dependent children.
The consequences of imprisoning mothers flows on down the generations. Children of parents who have been to prison are more likely to come into contact with the justice system. And most of the women incarcerated are themselves victims of repeated traumas that began in childhood.
Accurate data is difficult to come by, but some estimates put the number of women in prison who were sexually abused as children as high as 90 per cent. Prior to incarceration, it’s estimated that 98 per cent of women prisoners have experienced physical abuse.
Sarah, who is now 45, fits the profile. She left home when she was 15 to escape domestic violence, only to be the target of more violence at the hands of her boyfriend.
“I left with a boyfriend who was 28. He was my way out. But then I got bashed up by him,” says Sarah.
Jesuit Social Services’ Kate Colvin says people who have histories of victimisation are more likely to have problems with drugs and alcohol as a way of coping with their trauma, and that can often lead to offending.
“The evidence shows that when people have repeat traumas it has far reaching consequences for their mental health. People are in a heightened state of arousal and have a very low capacity to self regulate so a trigger, something that is distressing or angering, can result in an escalated response,” says Colvin.
Most of the women in prison are not hardened and violent criminals that need to be kept off the streets to keep the community safe. Compared to male offenders, they’re more likely to be victims of abuse and economic disadvantage — and their offences, such as fraud and shoplifting, tend to be linked to poverty.
Indigenous women are often imprisoned for minor offences, such as driving infringements and non-payment of fines.
Last year Western Australia’s Labor opposition revealed more than 1100 people are being imprisoned each year in WA due to unpaid fines. The bulk of offenders are indigenous and female.
Kate Colvin says that instead of locking up an ever increasing number of traumatised and disadvantaged women — and separating them from their children — we need to address the reasons why women are offending.
We also need better support for women when they are released from prison.
“Women coming out of prison desperately need appropriate and affordable housing. Sometimes we are able to find alternative housing for women, but many end up returning to situations of violence when they come out of prison because the housing options are so scarce.”
Sarah says she lost all her possessions when she went to prison. Her car was impounded after her arrest and her children didn’t have enough money to get the car released. And she’s now fighting to keep the government house she was living in prior to her arrest.
“If I don’t get my house I’ll have nowhere to live. I’ve got my kids back but I’ve lost everything else,” she says.
Our institutions have failed — and continue to fail — countless children and women who are victims of sexual abuse and domestic violence. They are among the most vulnerable people in our community, but rather than providing support, we wait until they commit trauma- and poverty-related offences and then we lock them up.
And then their children are traumatised by being abandoned into foster care or hastily-made care arrangements, further adding to the vicious cycle of disadvantage.
*Not her real name