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Indigenous Australians In Australian Prison System

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Discuss about the Indigenous Australians in Australian Prison System.  




Indigenous Australians are majorly over represented in the prison system of Australia. As per the data of Australian Bureau of Statistics, the rate of women imprisonment has increased in the upwards of 50% during the period of 2005-2015. There is a remarkable difference in the growth rate of women imprisonment as compared to the imprisonment rate of men. In the following segments, a discussion has been carried on the historical context of the women imprisonment. The statistics are also presented to show the overrepresentation of the indigenous women in Australia. Further, an analysis has been done to understand the reasons for the high prison rates. The disadvantages and the feminist theory with regards to the imprisonment of indigenous women have also been highlighted. Lastly, the issues regarding the indigenous and non indigenous women in the prison have been discussed.

From the times of slavery during 1619-1865, to Jim Crow in South during 1865- 1965, there has been a presence of division and discrimination on the basis of the color of skin. The indigenous people had to face domination from the pale skinned people, whether in this country or in the U.S.A. (Wacquant, 2001). Since 1991, when the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (RCIADIC) was concluded, there has been a huge growth in the population of Indigenous people in the prisons of Australia. A higher rise was seen in the number of Indigenous people in custody. Even though the Indigenous people are uniformly over represented in the prison system of Australia, the rate of imprisonment is visibly higher in the Indigenous women and is still increasing at a speedier pace.  Further, not much attention is given to the needs and circumstances of the Aboriginal women (Pour, 2016).


The Australian Institute of Criminology presented the statistics regarding offender rates on the basis of gender and jurisdiction for the year 2007-2008. As per these statistics, the number of Indigenous female in New South Wales amounted to 5591 and males amounted to 13964. The same statistics for Non-Indigenous people amounted to 603 for female and 2389 for males. In Southern Australia, the indigenous population for female was 8203 and for men it was 19905 as compared to 504 and 2089 for Non-Indigenous females and males, respectively. In the Northern Territory, these statistic amounted to 4294 and 15995 for indigenous and 385 and 1831 for non indigenous females and males, respectively. This data clearly shows that the percentage of Indigenous women in prison is quite high as compared to non-indigenous women. (Bartels, 2010).

A comparison of the prison population statistics from 1991, 2001 and 2013 shows the rise in the rate of imprisonment of women. The number of men in prison in 1991 was 12429, in 2001, it was 20960 (increased by 68.7 %) and in 2013, it was 28426 (increased by 35.6%). The number of women in 1991 was 607, in 2001, it was 1498 (increased by 146.7%) and in 2013, it was 2349 (increased by 56.8%). Specifically focusing on the population of indigenous women and non indigenous women in prison, the statistics reveal the alarming rate of indigenous women’s rate of imprisonment as compared to other groups in Australia.  The number of indigenous women in prison in 1991 was 104, in 2001, it was 370 (increased by 255.8 %) and in 2013, it was 28426 (increased by 109.5%). The number of non indigenous women in 1991 was 503, in 2001, it was 1128 (increased by 124.3%) and in 2013, it was 1558 (increased by 38.1%). The over representation of the indigenous people has been well documented in the criminal justice system.

This growth in the rate of imprisonment in Australia has attained the attention of a range of legal scholars and criminologist. Investigations have been started to understand and explain this increase. One of the aspects of such investigations relates to the exploration regarding the specific groups of Australians, i.e. the indigenous people with an emphasis on the indigenous women. The emphasis is the result of the 20% rise in the imprisonment of Indigenous women in a single year (Baldry, and Cunneen, 2014). The speedy increase in the rates of imprisonment revolves around the ideas of culture of control, penal excess and the new punitiveness.


The penal culture allows the exploration of the public sensibilities which undermine the penal values of a society. Penality means the study of punishment which is beyond the effects on an offender. This includes the social and cultural significance of punishment. The concept of Penality is broader and more complex as it explains the connections between the legal, political, social and economic policies which influence the whole punishment system. Most of the work of criminologists relates to bringing a change in the penal responses to the indigenous people specially the women. This includes the abuse of substance, racism, psychiatric and intellectual disability, discrimination, among the other things (Baldry, et al, 2011). 

The indigenous women have to face various disadvantages. The indigenous women are often victimized on the basis of alcohol, drug addictions, sexual and psychological abuse, physical abuse, and family breakdown. The National Drug Strategy Household Survey has stated that the level of smoking is higher in the lower socioeconomic groups and in the areas where such indigenous women live (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2008). The disadvantages for indigenous groups regarding health, housing, education, income and employment have been stated in Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage 2009 (Schwartz, 2010). The issues mentioned in this are not strictly related to the criminal justice issues, but are relevant to the justice reinvestment approach so as to reduce the number of offenses.

There is a feminist theory with regards to the indigenous women in imprisonment. This again relates to the color of the skin. The indigenous women are over-represented in prisons. The socialists’ perspectives regarding feminism has developed over a period of time and relates to the systemic nature of patriarchy (Warke, 2000). Further a link between colonialism and patriarchy helps in understanding this concept of feminism. The racial understanding was founded in the colonial categorizations of inferiority and difference. Paternalistic along with the brutal colonial attitude towards the Indigenous women in Australia, has resulted in such women being cast at the bottom of the class ladder, with the prospects of obedient servitude towards the pale skinned society. Various evidences have proved that Penality in Australia continues to be shaped by pervasive patriarchal colonialism (Baldry, and Cunneen, 2014).


The condition of indigenous and non-indigenous women within prison is troublesome. The major problem is the lack of awareness as a result of scarcity of literature in this regard. Even the final report of RCIADIC failed to address this issue relating to women in detail and there were no recommendations in this regard. The women in prison also lack the safety of the community.

There is an immediate need for reformation of the law and justice system in Australia to safeguard the indigenous women from the various disadvantages they face, both in the prison and out of it. Dedicated laws and policies are required to be developed along with the combination of strategic planning to strengthen the legal service provisions. This would ensure the development of indigenous women to drive the necessary changes by resourcing, flexibility and government engagement. Various initiatives have been taken in this regard which includes the Aboriginal Family Violence Prevention and Legal Service Victoria (FVPLS Victoria).  FVPLS Victoria provides counseling, legal assistance and prevention to the Indigenous victims of sexual assault and family violence (Burchfield and Braybrook, 2009). Such initiatives can only improve the present apathetic state of the indigenous women in Australia.

At times, the indigenous groups are punished differently than the dominant groups. Based on premises that indigenous people have tendencies of drug abuse and family issues along with sexual abuse, an indigenous person is considered as guilty from the beginning. The indigenous women specifically face this problem as discussed above. The indigenous people are often painted as predominantly violent (Anthony, 2013). 


There is another view with regards to leniency towards the indigenous people. Due to the emphasis on the norms for safeguarding the indigenous people, a view emerged that the culpability of the people was reduced by the courts to rationalize the application of mitigatory principles. The sentencing of the indigenous people was based on the cultural backwardness. And courts held that such indigenous people were mostly under the control of some other person (Anthony, 2013). But such notion was only present in the early days of protectionism. In the present age, such individuals are not under any control. Various reports have established that there is still the presence of a bias on the basis of racism. Due to the past views of such courts, the present day proceedings hurt the indigenous people. And in reality, they are punished differently (Bosworth, 2004). 

From the above analysis, it can be concluded that the indigenous people in Australia have to face the problem of discrimination and are often punished on the basis of their status. The state of all the women in the prisons is quite alarming, but the indigenous women specifically have to face the penal culture along with the racism bias. More reforms are needed to prevent this discrimination.



Anthony, T. (2013) Indigenous People, Crime and Punishment. Oxon: Routledge, p 26.

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2008) National Drug Strategy Household Survey: detailed findings, Drug statistics. Canberra: AIHW, Series no. 22. Cat. no. PHE 107., ix.

Baldry, E., and Cunneen, C. (2014) Imprisoned Indigenous women and the shadow of colonial patriarchy. Australian & New Zealand Journal of Criminology, 47(2), pp 276-298.

Baldry, E., et al. (2011). Imprisoning rationalities. Australian & New Zealand Journal of Criminology, 44(1), pp 24-40.

Bartels, L. (2010) Indigenous women’s offending patterns: A literature review. [Online] Australian Institute of Criminology. Available from: https://www.aic.gov.au/media_library/publications/rpp/107/rpp107.pdf [Accessed on: 17/09/16]

Bosworth, M. (2004). Theorizing Race And Imprisonment: Towards A New Penality. Critical Criminology, 12(2), pp 221–242.

Burchfield, S., and Braybrook, A. (2009) Improving Law And Justice Outcomes For Indigenous Women And Children. Indigenous Law bulletin, 7(12).

Pour, S. (2016) Over-Representation Of Indigenous Women In Australian Prisons: A Consideration Of The Contributing Factors. [Online] Australian Policy Online. Available from: https://www.aic.gov.au/media_library/publications/rpp/107/rpp107.pdf [Accessed on: 17/09/16]

Schwartz, M. (2010) Building Communities, Not Prisons: Justice Reinvestment And Indigenous Over-Imprisonment. Australian Indigenous Law Review, 14(1).

Wacquant, L. (2001) Deadly symbiosis. Punishment And Society, 3(1), pp 95-134.

Warke, J.M. (2000) Prisoners As Women: Questioning The Role And Place Of Imprisonment. [Online] Australian Institute of Criminology. Available from: https://www.aic.gov.au/media_library/conferences/womencorrections/millerwa.pdf [Accessed on: 17/09/16] 


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