Professor delves into silent epidemic


Women in prison: it’s been deemed a silent epidemic.

Globally, females are the new growth industry, having increased in numbers by 70% in Australia over the past 10 years.

University of Newcastle professor Elizabeth Sullivan is a research leader who is committed to health and gender equity and to improving the health and wellbeing of vulnerable females, particularly those with severe or rare conditions in pregnancy or in contact with the criminal justice system.

She says prison sentences have a major impact on women and their children.

“About 85% are either pregnant or mothers and incarceration has an accumulative effect on the children,” she says.

“When a male is in prison there’s someone on the outside to look after the children but, for the mothers, out-of-home care becomes much more of an option.

“Home detentions, community orders – we’ve got to look at ways to keep women in the community.

“For the kids, there’s unstable home care, separation trauma, and an impact on educational opportunities.”
Professor Sullivan hosted a public lecture at the Newcastle Conservatorium last week to discuss the growing trend.

The Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (BOCSAR) investigated several possible explanations, including an increase in women appearing in NSW courts; a rise in the seriousness of female offending; and an increase in the severity of sentencing and a change in the criminal history profile of women appearing before the courts.

BOCSAR found no evidence that courts were imposing harsher penalties on female offenders, nor any sign that female offending had become more serious.

“They found an increase in repeat offenders,” professor Sullivan says.

“That’s the biggest change – there’s an increase in NSW Police taking matters to court, so women go into remand.”

Professor Sullivan’s studies have focused on Aboriginal women.

BOCSAR stated that, between 2011 and 2017 in NSW, the number of Aboriginal women in prison rose by 74%, from 195 to 340, compared with a 40% growth in non-Aboriginal females over the same time period. 

“There is an over-incarceration of Aboriginal women; about 30% of the adult female prison population is Aboriginal, but they only represent around 3% of the population as a whole,” professor Sullivan says.

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