Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are one of the fastest growing prison populations. They are largely overrepresented among prison inmates. Incarceration rates for this population have risen by 18% since 2013 (Bridie 2014). These rates are even higher in the Western and Northern territory where women account for 43% and 84% of the population respectively (Koerff, 2014). Only 2% of Australian women identify themselves as of aboriginal decent, yet one third of the female prison population consists of aboriginal women (Grant & Paddick, 2014).It has been suggested that many social forces are behind this rising trend. This research will explore the explanations that have been offered for the rise in aboriginal women in prison.

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Overrepresentation of Indigenous Women in Australian Prisons

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It has been suggested that the rise in aboriginal women in prisons coincides with government moves the cut funding to indigenous legal and family violence prevention services (Bridie 2014). A large percentage of incarcerated women are repeat offenders. It has been suggested that one of the reasons for this is that women’s prisons are designed for men. They do not meet needs of women (Grant, 2014).

When the reasons for the imprisonment are examined, it is found that many of the women are in prison for crimes that are often associated with poverty including shop-lifting, non-payment of fines, driving and alcohol, and welfare fraud (Baldry, 2013). Aboriginal women are often living alone and raising children at the time of their incarceration (Paddick, 2011). In order to decrease these types of crimes, the problems that cause them need to be identified and corrected. Until the underlying problems are addressed through the formation of proper support networks, the problems can be expected to continue.

The problem will continue to grow unless an approach is taken that specifically addresses the social conditions that case incarceration rates to rise. For instance, pre-release programs specifically designed to provide women the support they need in the community were found to significantly reduce repeat offenses in Western Australia (Bartels & Gaffney, 2011). Women who are incarcerated lose permanent custody of their children. The children are more likely to become offenders themselves (Grant & Paddick, 2014). Women are more likely than men to be released to a broken home, poverty, and no resources (Grant & Paddick, 2014). This make it more likely that this woman will commit further crimes as a matter of survival.

In order to resolve the problem of rising prison populations among Australian aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, the focus must be on resolving the underlying social issues that motivate them to commit crimes. In addition, the focus needs to be on providing the social supports to women once they are released. Women were found to have a higher level of emotional needs than men. When their needs are not met, they have a higher level of recidivism (Butler, 2010). This research supports the need for programs that will help to provide not only the financial resources that the women need to thrive and rebuild their lives. Programs needs to address the multiply disadvantages that these women face, both after they are released and in society as a whole. Often aboriginal women lack the vocational and social skills necessary to provide for themselves and their children (Butler, 2010).

Resolving these issues will play the biggest role in reducing crime among this population and in allowing them to recover and become productive members of society when they are released. Resolving the issues that these women face supports the need for better programs to help them achieve success. The system needs to set them up for success, not set them up for continued failure.