Racial and Gender Justice for Aboriginal Women in Prison

A room full of majority women watch a mix of Aboriginal and non-Indigenous women panellists at the Sydney Law School

On Thursday 23 May 2019, I attended at the Sydney University Law School Beyond Punishment Seminar Series: Aboriginal Women in the Criminal Justice Network. The speakers discussed data on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in prison, and programs to support them in the state of New South Wales (NSW). ‘Aboriginal’ women in the context of the talks and the discussion below also encompasses Torres Strait Islander women.*

Before I tell you more about the talks, I’ll set the scene, looking solely at the adult prison context affecting Aboriginal women being targeted by the criminal justice system.

Over-incarceration is an issue best examined through a lens of intersectionality, a term originally exploring the limitations of dominant definitions of discrimination under industrial law (Crenshaw 1989: 150). Legal outcomes of Aboriginal women are simultaneously impacted by race, gender, class and other systemic inequalities. Lack of legal resources available to Aboriginal women to navigate the legal system is born of concurrent racial justice and gender inequalities. Economic disadvantage, poor access to therapeutic and other health services, and housing insecurity are preconditions of offending; these are class and racial justice issues. Sexual violence and poverty of Aboriginal mothers are typical of imprisoned women’s backgrounds at a rate that is much higher than male prisoners (Stathopoulos and Quadara 2014). Again, these are both racial and gendered issues, which are interconnected with colonial violence and intergenerational trauma.

I am writing on 26 May; National Sorry Day. This day commemorates the truth-telling of the Bringing Them Home report, the documentation of the Stolen Generations. Around 100,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were forcibly taken from their families under our racist social policy. The first institution built to ‘civilise’ Aboriginal children through the use of violence was in Parramatta, New South Wales (Marlow 2016). From 1910 to 1970, across the nation, Aboriginal children were forced to forget their culture, language and spirituality. They were placed into neglect by Christian-run missions and into White foster care (AHRC 1997). Today, the state continues to forcibly remove Aboriginal children from their families at four times the rate as non-Indigenous kids (Zevallos 2017). New forced adoption laws in New South Wales mean children placed in care will be forcibly adopted (Zevallos 2019). For Aboriginal women in prison, this will almost certainly mean losing legal rights to see their children. Fracturing families through the imprisonment of mothers is another way in which colonial violence continues in the present-day.

Forced removal of Aboriginal children leads to cultural disconnection, exposure to child abuse, an increased likelihood of entering the criminal justice system, and trauma for mothers. These are gender, race and class dynamics unique to Aboriginal women, their families and communities.

Social context of racial injustice

At the national level, the Australian Bureau of Statistics reports that there are almost 42,800 adults in full-time custody, with Aboriginal people representing 28% of the national imprisonment rate (11,800 Aboriginal people) (ABS 2019). This is in spite the fact that Indigenous people make up only 2.8% of our national population (ABS 2017a). NSW has the highest incarceration rate across Australia (31%), and the highest Aboriginal and Torres Strait prisoner population (28% of NSW prisoners are Indigenous) (ABS 2019). Yet Aboriginal people represent only 2.9% of the total NSW population (ABS 2017b).

The Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC 2017) reports that Aboriginal people are seven times more likely to be charged with a criminal offence and brought before the courts than non-Aboriginal people.  But they are also 12.7 times more likely to receive a sentence of imprisonment. They are additionally over-represented in prison on remand (that is, denied bail and awaiting sentencing). They’re 27% more likely to be denied bail than non-Indigenous people. The remand rate for Aboriginal women is 104.3 per 100,000 compared to 6.7 per 100,000 for non-Aboriginal women. The overrepresentation ratio for Aboriginal women on remand is 15.7 (per 100,000) compared to overrepresentation of Aboriginal men (10.9) (p. 106).

Despite the justice system over-penalising Aboriginal people, they’re more likely to be given short sentences, including for their most serious charges (acts intended to cause injury). This is partly because they’re often spending more time on remand than they would’ve been sentenced. In half of the cases, the most serious assault does not result in injury (pp. 101-102). This in no way excuses violence; the justice issue is that Aboriginal people are more likely to be imprisoned even when they do not cause grave harm. Conversely, the system is more lenient with non-Indigenous people even where serious injury is involved. Three of every five Aboriginal people (60%) receive a custodial sentence for acts intended to cause injury compared with only one in three non-Aboriginal people (30%) (p. 108). With this over-policing and recurring sentencing, it’s no wonder that the rate of recidivism for Indigenous people is 76% (p. 119).

Table 1: Offence profile of people who appeared in court (2016)

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Non-Indigenous 
Acts intended to cause injury (24%) Illicit drug offences (23%)
Public order offences (17%) Acts intended to cause injury (20%)
Offences against justice (14%) Theft and related (13%)
Theft and related (12%) Offences against justice (12%)

Source: ALRC (2017). ABS data, ‘Criminal Courts Australia, 2015-2016’ (2017). Data for men and women charged before the court

Table 1 above shows that Aboriginal people are most likely to appear before the court due to acts intended to cause injury (24% of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander defendants in 2016). This is followed by public order offences (17%); offences against justice (14%); and theft (12%). For non-Indigenous people, the most common charges are: illicit drug offences (comprising 23% of all non-Indigenous defendants); acts intended to cause injury (20%); theft (13%); and offences against justice (12%). These patterns are distinct because Aboriginal people are more likely to be charged for petty offences.

The ALRC writes:

‘With respect to over-policing, the evidence indicates that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are more likely to be charged and arrested for public order offences and other forms of minor offending than non-Indigenous women. These offences include offensive language and behaviour, driving offences, and justice procedure offences (such as breach of a community-based order). When compared to non-Indigenous women, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are also more likely to be subject to “preventative” detention regimes—such as the Alcohol Mandatory Treatment regime (AMT) in the NT [Northern Territory].’ (p. 363)

You can see the charges versus remand differences between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people below (click to enlarge).

A prior offence is more likely to lead to a sentence of imprisonment. With Aboriginal people being targeted by a racist system since youth, specifically beginning with separation from family (p. 73), our criminal justice system is almost assuring that Aboriginal people end up in and out of jail, thanks to the current sentencing and remand patterns.

My previous research shows that most justice and rehabilitation programs for vulnerable people have an overly complicated eligibility process that reproduces stigma. These services lack culturally meaningful approaches and input from Aboriginal experts (BIU 2018).

Inadequate responses to recidivism reproduces racial and gender inequality and contributes to our burgeoning prison system. Making wrap-around services easier to join and customised to individual and community needs of clients is one part of the puzzle. Addressing systemic racism across our justice and other social institutions is the primary answer.

Injustices against Aboriginal women

Looking now more specifically at women, in the most recently available data from 2018, the Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (BOCSAR) found that the number of women being imprisoned in NSW over the past six years has increased by 50% (from 682 to 1,021 women) (BOCSAR 2018). This is mostly affecting Aboriginal women, whose imprisonment rate has increased by 74% (from 195 to 340 women), compared with a 40% increase by non-Aboriginal women. The two biggest factors impacting this pattern is the number of women appearing before court and over-policing of women. The number of women held on remand has doubled (again: this means they’re languishing in prison awaiting trial, without conviction).  BOCSAR finds that these women are not committing more serious offences. They are just being processed more vigorously by NSW Police, who are charging 405 women each month; a rate like never before.

At the state and national levels, this is a gendered and racial justice crisis. Up to 90% of women prisoners are victims of domestic and family violence (Gleeson and Baird 2018). The injustice is compounded by the fact that these women are not provided support to begin with and then are revictimised by harsh police and criminal justice action. Perpetrators also use the criminal justice system to seek revenge, by misidentifying women as primary aggressors (Women’s Legal Service Victoria 2018). Aboriginal women victims of intimate partner violence are over six times more likely to experience mental health and other health burdens when they’re of childbearing age (18 to 44 years;  over five times for other ages) (Webster and Zevallos 2016). Eighty percent (80%) of Aboriginal women in NSW directly identify their history of sexual abuse as a precursor to, or otherwise impacting, their reoffending (ALRC 2017: pp. 351-353).

At the time of arrest, the majority of Aboriginal women who are incarcerated were under the influence of drugs (68%), alcohol (14%) or both (4%) (Lawrie 2003: 47). Alcohol and other drugs (AOD) are often used as self-medication to cope with sexual abuse and other intergenerational trauma. Eighty percent of Aboriginal women interviewed by Wakka Wakka and Wiradjuri woman researcher, Rowena Lawrie, said that their drug use was a contributing factor to their incarceration (Lawrie 2003: 48).

‘If we had more support, then we wouldn’t need alcohol or drugs, we need housing when we get out of custody.’

‘If there were more rehabilitation centres available to me earlier in life, maybe I would not be in the situation I am today.’

‘When I was first convicted at 18, I was shoplifting to sell goods so that I would have money to buy drugs… I have never been offered drug rehabilitation. I wanted to go to drug rehabilitation but have never had the opportunity.’  (Lawrie 2003: 49)

AOD use often leads to homelessness or precarious housing for Aboriginal people because of few rehabilitation and housing options available to them. Indigenous people were more likely to be homeless prior to being imprisoned (27%) compared to non-Indigenous people (24%). Indigenous people were also less likely to have their own long-term accommodation organised by the time they were discharged from prison (56%) compared with non-Indigenous people (62%) (AIHW 2015: 28-30).

Without stable housing, children are taken from Aboriginal women, and they have little resources and legal recourse to get their kids back. This ensures the cycle of poverty, forced family separation and intergenerational trauma of the Stolen Generations will be passed onto the next cohort of youth (AHRC 1997).

Lack of trust in legal and medical institutions impact on the help available to Aboriginal women caught up in the criminal justice system. The women’s distrust is warranted, due to historical injustice, discrimination, and cultural disrespect embedded into these institutions. Other barriers to Aboriginal women finding adequate support include:

  • institutional racism, poverty and social isolation;
  • previous adverse family experiences;
  • lack of understanding of their rights and options;
  • fear of losing their children due to traumatic experiences with human services and related agencies; and
  • poor access to interpreters and culturally safe support (ALRC 2017: 353; see also Zevallos 2017).

In 2017, the Women’s Legal Service NSW made the following recommendation to the Australian Law Reform Commission:

‘Legal reform is needed to reduce the criminalisation and over-incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, particularly women. There must be a whole-of-system approach which addresses the underlying causes and drivers of the offending behaviour with a greater focus on prevention and early support.’ (WLS NSW 2017: 3)

Let’s now hear from the Sydney Law School panel.

Continue reading Racial and Gender Justice for Aboriginal Women in Prison

Understanding Racism in Social Context

Race is a social construction. This means that biological or phenotypic traits are classified in ways that reinforce inequalities benefiting majority groups. Hence “race” is understood differently across nations, depending on history and culture. White people have a tendency to see racism in subjective and relativist views: White Canadians think that racism is less of an issue in their country than in the USA; White people in Aotearoa New Zealand think racism in Australia is far worse than in their own backyard; and Australians think racism in Australia has “gotten better,” and that we are better off than the USA. These comparisons are one way in which White supremacy is maintained locally. Individual observations about so-called “worse” racism in other countries only serves to maintain racial injustice. Let’s now see how this plays out in everyday discussions of racism.

Continue reading Understanding Racism in Social Context

Spanish Film Festival 2019, Part 2: The Good Girls, Ana by Day, Carmen y Lola, The Chambermaid, The Longest Night

Jump in for part 2 of my film reviews for this year’s Spanish Film Festival! All of these films are centred on women and issues of class, as directed by non-Indigenous, non-Black women. But there are other themes of intersectionality that I will draw out.

We start with The Good Girls, a much-celebrated tale about greed and White femininity during the 1982 financial crisis in Mexico. Ana by Day starts from an interesting premise – a White woman comes home to find someone else already in her home: her doppelganger. What to do? We move through risque escapism, as envisioned from a place of class privilege. Two of the strongest films of the festivals follow. For the most thoughtful exploration of patriarchy, sexuality and race I’ve ever seen on film, Carmen y Lola is unsurpassed. It was an engrossing story of a young, lesbian Gitana minority woman in Spain, falling in love in a context where ‘compulsory heterosexuality’ and its complex ties to culture and family are unpacked. Another highlight is a methodical and complex look at the lives of Brown Mexican women who service hotels. If you think that sounds mundane, The Chambermaid will floor you with its poignant study of a woman who has always made herself small to survive. She finds subtle ways to subvert servitude. Finally, with its weighty ideals and harrowing topic of human trafficking, The Longest Night is superb filmmaking but utterly horrific for anyone committed to women’s rights. Let’s find out why.

(Read Spanish Film Festival 2019, Part 1)  Trigger warning: discussion of depicted sexual violence, family violence. Continue reading Spanish Film Festival 2019, Part 2: The Good Girls, Ana by Day, Carmen y Lola, The Chambermaid, The Longest Night

Spanish Film Festival 2019, Part 1: The Realm, Tremors, Champions, Crime Wave, Rojo

It’s an exciting season in Sydney, with multiple festivals concurrently keeping us entertained from April to the end of June. First up is one of my favourites, the Spanish Film Festival. I bought a pass to see 10 films, mostly from Latin America and half by non-Indigenous, non-Afro women directors. We have a long way to go with stories reflecting the writing and direction of minorities. The festival has, however, included stories with disabled, queer and/or other ethnic minorities as protagonists. Those are the films I’ve predominantly chosen. The rest are political stories. Today, I bring you the first of two posts reviewing films from an intersectionality perspective. The festival began in Sydney on 16 April and ends 8 May, before travelling to all metropolitan cities.

Let’s take a look at the political thriller, The Realm, which sweeped this year’s Goya Awards (the ‘Spanish Oscars’). Tremors is the compelling but distressing story of a devoutly religious gay man from Guatemala. Champions is a highly successful Spanish movie featuring an ensemble cast of disabled actors playing a famous basketball team. Crime Wave takes a serious premise (an emotionally abusive man is murdered) and turns it into a cascading set of comedic deaths. Yikes! Finally, another political drama, Rojo, swells from the early days of the devastating Argentinean coup. The players ponder: under which local conditions do national tyrants rise? The answer is from ordinary towns, where people are too polite to notice men arguing and boys “disappearing.”

Central Park Mall, where Palace Cinemas Central and Platinum is hosting the Festival

Continue reading Spanish Film Festival 2019, Part 1: The Realm, Tremors, Champions, Crime Wave, Rojo

Using Intersectionality in Collective Responses to Sexual Harassment

Trigger warning sexual harassment and assault: let’s talk about intersectionality, policy and practice in dealing with sexual harassment.

There seem to be endless cases of sexual harassment coming to light, but these are the tip of the iceberg. In Australia, 575 cases of harassment and rape have been reported in higher education in the past five years alone. Most cases go unpunished, while other institutional responses are sluggish or inadequate. For example,  of the 575 cases, only six perpetrators were expelled. In the University of New England, perpetrators were only fined $55 and received eight hours community service.

The issues are well-known, but equity advocates note that little institutional reform has happened. Continue reading Using Intersectionality in Collective Responses to Sexual Harassment

Enacting Whiteness When Tagging People of Colour

I’ve written about why White people should reflect on the deeper motivations whenever they feel a need to tag Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and other people of colour, in their own conversations on race and racism. White people should understand that tagging people of colour into racist exchanges introduces further discrimination and abuse into that person’s life. I show this through an example of online abuse I received after one of my White followers tagged me twice into conversations involving someone who had previously harassed me.


White people often tag people of colour into their social media conversations on racism without recognising the impact. Sometimes this is because White people become easily overwhelmed when engaging in personal conversations of racism. This is an outcome of Whiteness. White people do not often think critically about race and so they are not readily aware of the benefits and protections they receive from their race. As such, everyday racism is often invisible to them. This includes not noticing racism unless it is overt in an extreme form which they recognise and feel disconcerted by. When they decide to step into racial conversations, White people are unfamiliar with how quickly race discussions escalate. As they face race discussions head on, they may panic and tag people of colour, ironically, to get support and reinforcement from people of colour.

This might take the form of a benign invitation to a person of colour as racial observer (“I wonder what @PersonOfColour thinks about this?”) or as racism expert (“How dare you say something so racist. You should read @PersonOfColour’s posts”). Continue reading Enacting Whiteness When Tagging People of Colour

Interview: Talking Feminist Sociology

Drawing of several women dressed in historical STEM outfits

In case you missed this on my other social media, in January 2019, Lady Science published a podcast about my career and feminism.  I was interviewed in late 2018 by Leila McNeill, one of the editors-in-chief. Below is an excerpt where you can learn a little about my professional history. I discuss how racial minority sociologists are challenging knowledge production in our field. I show how the concept of otherness is feeding the overt political resurgence of White nationalism. Then I cover the importance of intersectionality in sociological practice.

My face is drawn Brown, with red lipstick and red lines shining out of my top of my head
Portrait of me commissioned from the feminist and artist, Tyler Feder

Leila: To kick off our series I’ll be talking with Zuleyka Zevallos, a sociologist from Australia, about the history of sociology, how the work of Indigenous and minority sociologists is changing the field, and how intersectional feminism influences her work. Leila: Without further ado, I’ll let Zuleyka introduce herself.

Z. Zevallos: Yep, so my name’s Zuleyka Zevallos. I’m a sociologist, and I’ve got a PhD in sociology. I started off doing research on the intersections of identity from migrant background women. I was really interested in how their experiences of gender, sexuality, ethnicity and also religion made their sense of identity, and how that also interconnected with their experiences of racism and multiculturalism, and how all of that affected their sense of belonging to their communities, as well as broader Australian society.

Z. Zevallos: After I finished my PhD I’ve been teaching the whole way through, and then I was an academic for a little while. I taught the sociology of gender and sexuality as well as leading courses on ethnicity and race. I also looked at the impact of technology on society…

Z. Zevallos: I spent the first few years working with an interdisciplinary social modelling team. That was a really great experience because it really taught me different applications of sociology, but also how to speak to scientists from the natural and physical sciences, from computer sciences, and how to blend their disciplines with mine.
Continue reading Interview: Talking Feminist Sociology

Charming Central Coast: Aboriginal Organisations and Sights on Darkinjung Land

Sommersby Falls with the blog post title overlaid: Charming Central Coast - Aboriginal Organisations and Sights on Darkinjung Land

I’ve previously mentioned that I’d been away on secondment for six weeks at the end of last year. I was part of a national program that matches professionals from policy and corporate sectors with Aboriginal-controlled community organisations. I worked with Barang Regional Alliance (Barang) on the Central Coast, on their Empower Youth Summit, which was held last weekend, on 23-24 February 2019. Barang looks after the interests of 12,500 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people on Darkinjung land. It was a pleasure to work on this meaningful project and to learn more about Barang and its partners, whom I touch on below. You can see the Barang team and my fellow secondees below.

Next time, I’ll talk a little on my project, and some photos from the weekend, attended by 120 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth.  Today, I’m going to focus more on my broader experience on the Central Coast, especially the Aboriginal-Controlled organisations with whom we collaborated, as well as the cultural walks and sights. I’ll share with you a visual sociology of our visit to Finchley Campground, the beautiful rock art at Baiame Cave and Bulgandry, the Koori Art Exhibition, various national parks and festivals, plus much more!

Continue reading Charming Central Coast: Aboriginal Organisations and Sights on Darkinjung Land

Stop Forced Adoptions

Today marks the 11th anniversary of former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s Apology to the Stolen Generations. From 1910 to 1970, up to one third of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children (100,000 children) were forcibly removed from their families and sent away from their communities. They were classified according to their skin colour and put into Christian missionaries where they suffered abuse and neglect, or they were placed with White foster families who did not understand their needs. These children were forced to forget their language, culture and spirituality, and in many cases they were not told of their Indigenous heritage.

The Bringing Them Home report of 1997 gathered evidence of the impact this cultural genocide had on Indigenous Australians, showing that it led to intergenerational trauma, poor health, and socio-economic issues. The report made 54 important recommendations to end the cycle of violence against Indigenous Australians.

Twenty years later, Indigenous children are being removed from their families up to four times the rate.

Join the Grandmothers Against Removals, protesting forced adoptions law in NSW. Their ethos is that: ‘The best care for kids is community.’ Below are my live-tweeted comments, beginning at the Archibald Fountain in Sydney.

Continue reading Stop Forced Adoptions

Sociology of Spiders

A tiny spider on a centre of an orange wall, in a halo of light

A diminutive spider accompanied by its tiny shadow had me captivated as I pondered the sociology of spiders and fear.

Spiders inspire irrational fright, despite the fact that most spiders can’t harm humans. The small percentage that can are not usually found in our homes and they don’t specifically seek us out for attack. Yet even I overreact at the sight of a spider at home (or in my swag during a recent camping trip!).

Our collective fear of spiders in urban areas is culturally determined, and it far outweighs the risk posed. Spiders feature as focus and metaphor for different types of fears in Western societies. Even amongst educated people, spiders are a source of disgust and anxiety. Why might that be the case?

Continue reading Sociology of Spiders