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Women Prisoners in NSW

The female prison population in NSW is growing at a faster rate than the male prison population, with women increasingly being less able to access non-custodial sentencing options1. Most women are incarcerated for non-violent offences and serve sentences of less than two years1. The majority of people in prison have drug and alcohol issues and women's offending is largely associated with supporting these drug and alcohol dependencies.2

How Many Women are in NSW Prisons?

  • In 2009 there were 854 women in full-time custody, representing 7.47% of the total prison population in NSW.1
  • More than 40% of the women released from prison in NSW will return to prison within 2 years.3

Nearly a quarter of the women in prisons in NSW come from just two areas* in Sydney2. These areas are characterised by their high levels of cumulative disadvantage; economic and social disadvantage, family stress and breakdown, low levels of literacy and high rates of unemployment.

(* areas are defined by statistical subdivisions according to the ABS. We have deliberately not included suburb names to avoid adding further stigma and discrimination to residents of these suburbs)

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Women on Remand in NSW

Over a quarter of women in prison are on remand (refused bail while awaiting sentence).1 The growing remand population is arguably due to police enforcement of bail laws and recent changes to the Bail Act 1978 that restricts the number of times an applicant can apply for bail.5 While on remand, prisoners have limited access to programs, services and support.

Women are also more likely to be released from court with little or no preparation for their release and with a lack of support to re-establish their lives outside prison. In 2009, 26.83% of women in full-time custody were on remand1 compared to 1998 when 15.6% of women were on remand.6

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Aboriginal Women in NSW Prisons

Aboriginal women are grossly over-represented in NSW prisons and they are proportionally the fasting growing group of people being incarcerated in NSW.1 Both Aboriginal women and men are also increasingly being remanded to prison more often and for longer periods. The increasing rate of imprisonment of Aboriginal people does not correspond to an increase in crimes committed, but rather because they are more likely to be refused bail and more likely to be given a prison sentence than in previous periods.7 Aboriginal people are also more likely than non-Aboriginal people to have had one or both parents in prison, demonstrating the inter-generational effect of Aboriginal incarceration.2

  • More than 47% of women in prison between the ages of 25-34 are Aboriginal.
  • In 2006 only 2% of women in the general community in NSW identified as Aboriginal.
  • The number of Aboriginal females in prison in NSW grew from 96 in 19986 to 220 in 20091 an increase of 230% in 10 years. In contrast the number of non-Aboriginal women incarcerated in NSW over the same period increased by 43%.1

See Aboriginal Prisoners in NSW for more information.

Aboriginal women are the most rapidly growing group of prisoners in Australia. In New South Wales, though they make up 2% of the female population, Aboriginal women make up approximately 30% of the women's prison population. They have higher rates of return to prison; higher numbers of dependent children; higher rates of mental health disorders; and experience higher rates of domestic and sexual violence and homelessness than their non-Aboriginal counterparts

(Lawrie 2002; Cunneen 2002; Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Jusice Commissioner 2003; Butler and Milne 2003; Baldry & Maplestone 2005; Baldry et al 2006).

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Drug and Alcohol Issues of Women Prisoners in NSW

The majority of women in prison in NSW have a history of illicit drug use and invariably for these women their offending and subsequent imprisonment is associated with their drug use issues.

  • 24% of women in prison are convicted of illicit drug offences, the single highest figure for any category of offence.1
  • 52% of women had injected illicit drugs at some point in their life.2
  • 54% of women had used illicit drugs regularly in the 12 months prior to imprisonment.2
  • 44% used illicit drugs while in prison (17% had injected drugs while in prison).2

See Prisoner Health in NSW for more information.

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Mental Health of Women Prisoners in NSW

People in prison are more likely to have a psychotic illness, major depression, and a personality disorder than the general population, and for women in prison the rates of poor mental health are even higher.

  • 52% of Aboriginal women and 55% of non-Aboriginal women had received treatment at some point in their life for a psychiatric problem, with depression being the most common diagnosis for both.2

See Prisoner Health in NSW for more information.

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Illness and Injury of Women Prisoners in NSW2

Generally, women in prison have poor physical health compared to the general population. They suffer from high rates of chronic health conditions, child sexual assault, head injuries and are more likely to smoke than women in the community.

  • 54% had an illness or disability that lasted for more than 6 months.
  • Aboriginal women had higher rates of asthma (62% vs. 32%) and heart condition (30% vs. 22%) compared to non-Aboriginal women.
  • 45% tested positive to Hepatitis C.
  • 60% had been sexually abused before the age of 16, and 30% had been sexually abused before age 10.10
  • 35% had had a head injury resulting in unconsciousness.
  • 88% of Aboriginal women and 76% of non-Aboriginal women were current smokers.
  • Prior to incarceration 39% of female prisoners had never accessed a medical centre, 20% had never accessed a GP and 4% had never accessed any health care prior to incarceration.

See Prisoner Health in NSW for more information.

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Family Responsibilities

Female prisoners are more likely than male prisoners to have primary responsibility for dependent children. In fact, it has been estimated that more than 80% of incarcerated women are single parents.11 The criminal justice system does not take into account these primary carer responsibilities when incarcerating women, and as a result women may find themselves placed in a prison a long way from home. Female prisoners are also much more likely to have had their children removed from their care either prior to incarceration or as a result of incarceration. 68% of Aboriginal women and 42% of non-Aboriginal women had at least one child under the age of 16.2

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Post Release Issues

Women face a multitude of complex, interconnected issues once released from prison. These include; lack of accommodation options, few or no social supports, loss of personal effects, debt and unemployment, breakdown in family relationships, issues around getting children back into their care and ongoing mental health and drug and alcohol issues.

  • On release, female prisoners owe an average of $3,417.12
  • 70% of prisoners were given no information on accommodation and support options pre-release.13
  • 52% of Aboriginal women and 50% of non-Aboriginal women had issues with their accommodation in the first 6 months post release14.

See About Criminal Justice Clients for more information.

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A selection of the references used in No Bars along with other related publications can be found on the Research And Publications page.

  1. Corben, S. (2010) NSW Inmate Census 2009, Sydney: Corrective Services NSW.
  2. Indig, D. et al. (2010) NSW Inmate Health Survey 2009: Key Findings Report, Sydney: Justice Health.
  3. NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (2009) NSW Current Trends in recorded crime statistics 2004- 2008, NSW Government, www.lawlink.nsw.gov.au/lawlink/bocsar/ll_bocsar.nsf/pages/bocsar_trends_nsw
  4. Vinson, T. (1999). Unequal in Life, Select Committee.
  5. Lulham, R. & Fitzgerald, J. (2008) 'Trends in Bail and sentencing outcomes in NSW Criminal Courts: 1993 - 2007', Crime & Justice Bulletin: Contemporary Issues in Crime & Justice, Number 124, November 2008.
  6. Corben, S. (1998) NSW Inmate Census, Sydney: NSW Department of Corrective Services.
  7. Fitzgerald, J. (2009) Why Are Aboriginal Imprisonment Rates Rising? Sydney: NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research.
  8. NSW Department of Corrective Services, Corporate Research, Evaluation & Statistics (2009) Female Offenders: A Statistical Profile, 2nd edition, October 2009.
  9. Australian Bureau of Statistics (2006) Population Distribution, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.
  10. Butler T. & Milner L. (2003) The 2001 NSW Inmate Health Survey, Sydney: Corrections Health Service.
  11. Law Reform Commission, NSW (2000). Report 96 (2000) - Sentencing: Aboriginal offenders, www.lawlink.nsw.gov.au/lrc.nsf/pages/R96CHP6
  12. Stringer A. (1999). The Prison and Debt Project, Prisoners Legal Service Inc. Queensland.
  13. Baldry, E. & Maplestone, P. (2003) Barriers to Social and Economic inclusion for those leaving prison.
  14. Baldry, E. et.al. (2003) Ex-prisoners and Accommodation: What bearings do different forms of housing have on social reintegration for ex-prisoners, Position Paper 27, AHURI, Sydney: UNSW & UWS Research Centre

The majority of women in prison in NSW have a history of illicit drug use and invariably for these women their offending and subsequent imprisonment is associated with their drug use issues.