Death sentence for poverty? Why the over-representation of First Nations women prisoners matters during the pandemic

27th May 2020

I am desperately worried about the threat to women’s life if there is an outbreak of COVID-19 in an Australian women’s prison. And, once again, it is a threat which is magnified for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women prisoners. COVID-19 is definitely not ‘just another flu’. I speak from personal experience when I say that full-blown COVID-19 is very frightening, and disturbing symptoms can persist long after clearance by medical authorities. And to be clear, there is no comparison between my health ‘starting point’ and the poor health profile of women prisoners. There is also no comparison between the health services available to me in the community, and the poor medical and mental health support available in prisons. 

The statistics

Some statistics bear repeating. Despite comprising less than 3% of the population, more than one-third of women prisoners in Australia are First Nations women, and First Nations women are the fastest growing cohort in the prison population. We associate the concept of ‘mass incarceration’ with the USA, yet Aboriginal women and children are being imprisoned in Australia at 20 times the rate of African-American imprisonment in the USA. Western Australia imprisons Aboriginal people at nine times the rate of apartheid South Africa. Across Australia, approximately 40% of women prisoners are on remand (often due to homelessness or unmet health needs) and a further 20% are imprisoned for procedural offences. Most spend a short time in prison for minor, non-violent offences; and many return to prison within months of release, often due to poverty.

Prisoners are particularly vulnerable to contracting COVID-19 and First Nations women prisoners are most at risk of being severely impacted by the virus. Almost half of the women received into Australian prisons have a chronic medical condition. Over 90% of Aboriginal women prisoners have a diagnosed mental illness, and almost half have PTSD. The number of older women prisoners in Australia has grown significantly over the past 20 years. Sisters Inside, an organisation which advocates for the human rights of criminalised women and girls, and their children, is increasingly seeing women prisoners with serious health concerns such as chronic cardiac disease, respiratory illnesses and degenerative conditions. Our Health Support Program workers in Brisbane estimate that 70% of the women they support post-release are aged between 55 and 64 years, and 80% are First Nations women. 

Addressing the issues

Too many people, particularly First Nations prisoners, have died in custody due to delays and neglect in responding to urgent medical needs. Women’s health has always deteriorated in prison, and measures implemented in response to COVID-19 further threaten women prisoners’ physical and mental health. These include: 

  • 14-day quarantine upon entry; 
  • no face-to-face visits;
  • removal of services, programs and employment opportunities; and 
  • distanced professional visits (eg. telehealth). 

While these punitive constraints on prisoner movements and interactions are imposed, thousands of prison staff move freely in and out of Australian prisons every day, with few provisions in place to reduce the risk of community transmission of COVID-19 to prisoners via prison staff.

Now is a particularly scary time. The threat to women prisoners increases as containment measures in the wider community are eased. Prisons are ill-equipped to implement even the most basic prevention measures recommended by health authorities – hand hygiene and social distancing. Infection rates up to 80% have been documented in overseas prisons, and prisons account for eight of the ten largest COVID-19 outbreaks in the USA. With several Australian prison officers having been diagnosed with COVID-19, it is only a matter of time until the virus enters an Australian prison with devastating consequences – for prisoners, prison staff and the wider community.  

Governments in many countries, including the USA, UK, Indonesia and Iran, have released prisoners en masse to contain the spread of COVID-19. Although some Australian jurisdictions have brought in legislative and procedural measures for pandemic-related release, the release of even the most at-risk prisoners and prisoners on remand is occurring at a rate that could best be described as ‘a dribble’. It is essential that independent boards be established and empowered to release prisoners and that governments provide the means for former prisoners to live safely post-release.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Sisters Inside has been contacted by many distressed women prisoners who report inadequate access to soap – the only real prevention measure available in most prisons. Too many women are forced to choose between paying for soap or making phone calls to their children with their meagre weekly allowance (with no opportunity to earn more, with prison industries closed). Early in the pandemic, Sisters Inside called on the community to support the #FreeHer campaign to prevent the imprisonment for unpaid fines of First Nations women in WA. By April, Sisters Inside and a small group of activists had begun #CleanOutPrisons, a campaign with a dual message – to get soap to prisoners and to advocate for the release of prisoners. Initially, we called for the community to send donations of soap to prisons, but these donations were routinely rejected by prison authorities throughout Australia. 

The #CleanOutPrisons campaign has been further developed by families of First Nations people killed in police or prison custody. They fear for the lives of prisoners, and have signed an open letter and begun an associated petition calling on Australian governments to release all First Nations prisoners, with a particular focus on those most at risk. They have also proposed detailed measures to reduce: 

  • the risk of COVID-19 transmission within prisons; 
  • the harm done by current ‘prevention’ strategies;
  • the number of First Nations peoples entering prison, and 
  • the risk of extra COVID-19 police powers being used to further target, criminalise and imprison First Nations people. 

The #CleanOutPrisons campaign is also calling for people to send soap directly to their state and territory Attorney-General and Corrective Services Ministers.

The immediate priorities

In keeping with the urgent demands of the #CleanOutPrisons campaign, the first priority must be to release all women from prison, beginning with those at greatest risk from COVID-19. Prisoners must be released into safe, secure accommodation, with adequate resources to live. If we can do it for people returning from cruises, surely we can do it for our most disadvantaged community members. We must provide culturally-safe social, medical and mental health support; welfare and income support; and any other help needed to enable women to properly re-enter their communities after the trauma of prison.

We need to urgently implement strategies to address the main threat to prisoners who remain in the corrections system – transmission through prison staff. Prison staff should be required to wear personal protective equipment (PPE), and where there has been any risk of exposure, prisoners must be tested immediately.

We must acknowledge that solitary confinement of prisoners in the name of COVID-19 prevention is a form of torture, and consistent with Australia’s international obligations, this practice must stop. In fact, counter-intuitively, solitary confinement is likely to increase the risk of transmission because prisoners will be reluctant to report early symptoms out of a fear of isolation. It seems obvious that the resources being spent supervising women in (so-called) ‘quarantine’ would be much better spent supporting these women in the community. 

And finally, the importance of prisoners continuing to have access to family, friends and professional support cannot be emphasised enough. Prisoners must be given access to no-cost alternatives such as phone calls and Skype ‘visits’. 

I urge you to read the material provided below, which I have relied on in preparing this article.

Further reading 


Debbie Kilroy OAM is Principal Lawyer at Kilroy & Callaghan Lawyers, Brisbane. She has also led Sisters Inside, an organisation which advocates for the human rights of criminalised women and girls, and their children, for almost three decades. Having spent 20 years moving in and out of adult and children’s prisons in Queensland, Debbie began Sisters Inside when she was finally released in 1992. Debbie is also a qualified social worker, gestalt therapist and forensic mental health practitioner. 

The views and opinions expressed in these articles are the authors' and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of the Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA).

Learn about how you can get involved and contribute an article. 

Tags: Compensation Prisoners women's rights Prisons Indigenous justice COVID-19 Debbie Kilroy OAM