The general prison population is virtually invisible to mainstream Australia. Women make up a small percentage of Australia’s prison population—in the ACT’s Alexander Maconochie Centre (AMC) six percent of the total prison population are women.
Established in 2008 to provide detention facilities locally for ACT prisoners who were held in NSW facilities, the AMC is the only prison in Australia that houses both male and female prisoners. The decision to include women as well as men was made to give women closer connections with family and community in the ACT.
However, because of their small numbers, the responses and services available to women at the AMC are limited compared to the men. The women lack equal access to facilities, programs and services—their needs and views are almost totally unseen and unheard.
Women in the AMC
Women’s pathways to crime and incarceration are vastly different to those of men. Women tend to come into contact with the criminal justice system after committing minor, non-violent offences. Many have extensive histories of trauma and victimisation, including childhood sexual abuse and intimate partner violence.
The initial design of the AMC did identify the need for features which supported the social needs of women, and in the beginning all the women were accommodated in shared cottage-style accommodation rather than in cell blocks. However, in 2018 the AMC made the unilateral decision to move the women to a high security men’s unit within the main prison because of a growth in numbers.
As a result, the women are now exposed to the impacts and disadvantage from being held in a higher level of security than is required. And each time the female prisoners need to access other areas there is the potential for contact with male prisoners which many of the women—the majority of whom have been victims of domestic or sexual abuse—find distressing.
Inappropriate responses from the AMC that don’t take into account the specific needs of women increase the chances of recidivism and reduce feelings of safety.
Shining a light, sharing their stories
Women’s Health Matters has been engaged with women at the AMC from the very beginning.
When the AMC first opened, many Canberrans were not even aware there were female prisoners. As a result, in 2009 we released Invisible Bars: The Stories behind the Stats, to provide insights into the impact of imprisonment and institutionalisation on women.
At that time we also supported a group of ex-prisoners, the ACT Women and Prisons (WAP) Group, to advocate and highlight the issues for women prisoners. Our experience with WAP clearly demonstrated that women with lived experience are better able to identify the issues that affect women inside prison and the barriers to connecting with them.
Following the unilateral decision to move the women to a high security wing we have been visiting the women prisoners weekly. This relationship has informed our research and advocacy and led to vital pieces of work.
We conducted a survey with women in the AMC about their health and wellbeing and the supports they needed. And we supported them to develop their own submission to the Healthy Prison Review of the Alexander Maconochie Centre in 2019.
This was the first time a group of women prisoners at the AMC had ever been invited to make a submission, and they relished the opportunity to speak directly to the reviewers about what they needed changed and to have their views heard.
We researched and wrote a landmark report, The stories of ACT women in prison: 10 years after the opening of the AMC. The report shares the lived experiences of women in the AMC. Their stories are essential to break down stereotypes and to help uncover the role of trauma and poverty in reoffending.
Being seen, being heard
Sharing our research findings and the lived experiences of these women has led to ground-breaking changes within the justice system.
All the recommendations in the submission from the women prisoners were accepted and many have been acted on already. This is important recognition and validation that they had been heard, and that their voices do matter.
The ACT Government has also made commitments to progress recommendations which will significantly and positively impact the health, wellbeing and rehabilitation of women prisoners. And we have been included at the table in two major committees to inform the development of these and to identify other possible areas for progression.
Our work in this space is unique, essential and ongoing.