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#FreeHer – calling for the release of women and children from prison

Introduction by Croakey: Urgent action is needed to address the national emergency of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander deaths in custody, with five such deaths recorded since June, according to the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service (NATSILS).

The NATSILS call follows the recent death of a 49-year-old Aboriginal woman, Aunty Sherry Fisher-Tilberoo, in the Brisbane Watchhouse while on remand.

Meanwhile, the National Network of Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls has called for the release of all women and children in prisons, and for the voices of criminalised women and girls to be centred in public discourse.

As outlined in the article below, published as part of the #JusticeCOVID series, the National Network has released a ten-point decarceration plan as preliminary steps to complete decarceration.

The #JusticeCOVID e-publication will be launched with a Twitter festival from 11am AEST on Tuesday, 29 September, hosted by Dr Tess Ryan. Please join us and follow the discussions at #JusticeCOVID.


Debbie Kilroy, Tabitha Lean and Vickie Roach write:

As we bear witness to another two deaths in custody, our prisons in lock downs and children in cages sitting ducks for all of the COVID chaos that can rain down upon them, the National Network renew our persistent call for the immediate decarceration of all women and children locked in prisons across this country.

This pandemic has presented challenges for everyone: it has taken lives, isolated us, disrupted our work life and restricted our social activities…and for our sisters inside, the pandemic has severed all physical contact with the outside world.

Prisons across this country have been in lock down since the pandemic broke. That’s months since mothers have held their children. Months since people have embraced their loved ones. People inside are suffering, and they are not ok, and we must act now.

The National Network is a group of women who are or have been incarcerated. We are dedicated to driving our own collective vision for the future, our way.

Right across this country, people are speaking about us, without us. This National Network will recentre the voices of criminalised women and girls in the public discourse. We have the lived experience and the expertise to drive our own agenda.

Now more than ever is a time for formerly incarcerated people to be heard. We know what it is like to sit in an overcrowded cell once built for one but now house two or three, we know what it feels like to not have access to Medicare funded health services and we are hearing first-hand the ongoing hardships and health risks experienced by those inside during the pandemic. We have the expertise and we have the answers, hear us, join us, work with us.

While the National Network is fundamentally committed to decarceration, the need to move away from using prisons and other systems of social control in response to crime and social issues, we are especially vocal about the need to decarcerate during a pandemic.

The Network argues that no woman or child should be imprisoned in this country, for the abolition of all prisons, including those that cage children. As women and girls with lived experience, we will not accept conceding our demands because those that are arguing to reform the youth “justice” space by raising the age do not have to live with the compromise.

The National Network remains concerned and outraged at what is happening inside our prisons right now.

An outrage

We are hearing that people are being prevented from using the phones to call home, it’s been months since mothers have held their children, there have been attempted suicides and an increase in self harm, and the National Network are advised that in the past month three people have died from suicide in Western Australian prisons, and we have had another two women die in a watch house and a prison in six days this month of September 2020.

It’s an outrage that we aren’t hearing a whisper, let alone a roar about the human rights violations of women and kids inside.

Women and children in prison are facing extensive lock downs, cessations of visits, restricted access to phones, programs and service support and limited health care.

As a result, the National Network is calling very publicly for the immediate release of all children and women who are currently incarcerated in prisons in the middle of the pandemic.

Long term strategies to increase connection between women and children in prison, and their families need to be enacted immediately. These include the expansion of access to video calls, and the implementation of free calls, and outgoing mail across all Australian prisons.

Plans to ensure access to programs, meaningful employment, psychological care, and education must be maintained through the pandemic. The deafening silence from “corrections” departments about the support being offered to people inside, and their families, to remain healthy and connected is extremely concerning. The silence speaks volumes about the disposability of human lives behind bars.

People believe that women in prison are being kept at arm’s length from the community; however, the outbreak of COVID-19 in our prisons indicates just how closely connected we all are.

While people may like to think they lock people up and “throw away the key”, women and children are already being released into the community through bail, parole, and at the cessation of their sentence with little or no support.

Work with us

We are worried for every single person tethered to the criminal punishment system in this country. Decarceration is very possible, and we invite governments to work with our Network to develop plans for the safe, supported release of all women and children incarcerated in prisons immediately.

There have been confirmed COVID-19 cases in our children and adult prisons right across the country, with the most recent scare this week in Adelaide. This has resulted in wide scale prison lock downs, cancellation of family visits, and women and children being placed in lockdown, which is solitary confinement.

The permanent, negative impacts of solitary confinement and community isolation are well recognised, and include paranoia, anxiety, severe psychological suffering and permanent psychiatric disability.  These harmful effects can commence immediately whilst in the prison cell and continue following confinement.

Across the globe we are seeing prisons continue to release vulnerable people in prison to help flatten the curve, to protect people and to mitigate the potential of a devastating health crisis.

Yet in this country, we have not had one single compassionate release. We know that Covid-19 is in our children’s prisons and we know that children inside are scared, they’re suffering, their mental health is being affected. We must act now if we want to prevent any more deaths in custody because the lives of women and children in prisons should be an integral part of the health response to COVID-19.

We do not have the luxury of time here, and we do not have the luxury of being able to just take small steps and hope that this problem is going to go away.

We need to urgently release people in order to protect them and while we are doing that, let us into the prisons, let us run programs, let us support women and kids inside.

We must #FreeHer.

Post Script

While the National Network is advocating for immediate and total decarceration, we acknowledge that governments may favor a staged approach and offer the following ten-point decarceration plan as preliminary steps to complete decarceration.

Decarceration could look like:

  1. The immediate release of all children in custody to home and to safe accommodation. This virus is a youth prison crisis and our young people must be protected.
  2. Immediately release all people on remand. There is potential to release people onto bail and provide safe, affordable accommodation for them all.
  3. All Aboriginal prisoners should be immediately transitioned onto relaxed regimes. This could mean early release and early parole. It should be noted that during the 2009 swine flu outbreak, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people made up 11 percent of all identified cases, 20 percent of hospitalisations and 13 percent of deaths. The problem with COVID-19 is it has a 3.4 percent fatality rate, which is high, but with our cohort, if it gets into our communities and families, it’s going to be devastating.
  4. Parole hearings should be accelerated. People should be immediately transitioned onto parole. In many states, the membership of the Parole Board could be temporarily split into two groups enabling them to hold simultaneous hearings while still maintaining their quorum, but doubling their output (Qld has a COVID-19 parole sitting board that other jurisdictions could replicate as a matter of urgency).
  5. All community corrections meetings onsite must be cancelled, which include parole sign-ins and “youth justice reporting”. These appointments must be undertaken by the phone.
  6. Community corrections home visits must NOT allow staff to enter our homes during this period, rather should be door stop appointments, if at all necessary (Officers go house to house and cannot guarantee they will not bring the virus from one home to the next).
  7. Release all elderly and vulnerable people in prison immediately into safe accommodation with medical support in the community.
  8. As any pandemic control measures, including lockdowns caused by staff shortages, could have a significant impact on mental health, immediately suspend the cost of outgoing phone calls so that people in prison can stay connected to their loved ones (especially as visitation has ceased). The prison must facilitate a hands-free telephone system so people can phone their children and families without using the prison phone system.
  9. Any prisoners unable to be transitioned home into the community should be provided with additional free stamps during this period, enabling them to correspond with family.
  10. All people who are presently on home detention must be provided one six-hour period of free movement to travel to whatever supermarket necessary to collect supplies to feed their children. The current single three-hour shopping leave to a single shopping centre one day per week is not sufficient with the current supply/stock shortages we are witnessing in our shops.

For more information on the #JusticeCOVID project, see the stories published to date, read this media statement and follow the news at the #JusticeCOVID Facebook page.

This series was supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.