Shakira* sits comfortably in tracksuit pants in a small office in the Sisters Inside building. In the adjoining room, twelve other teenagers are painting at a long table, a weekly after-school art session, where young women who have been criminalised are encouraged to reflect on their experiences and support each other. The girl speaks in a low monotone, the words coming out faster than I can keep up. Born in Port Macquarie, her parents split up, and then after a couple of years her mum met another guy who’s now her stepdad, and he’s been in jail a couple of times, and her mum’s gone back into jail recently, and her mum had a kid with her stepdad, and she has a twin brother who’s in juvie, a little brother who is two, and two younger sisters who are twins, two years younger than her. Her blonde hair is tied back in a ponytail and she speaks without looking at me. ‘I’ve been in fifteen foster homes in my life,’ she says.
Shakira is thirteen. Her parents started going to jail when she was about two, for robberies and assaults. First it was nine months; then a year. She came into the care of the Queensland Department of Child Safety, when she was three and lived with an aunt for the first seven years. It was a kinship placement, where her aunt ‘went to court and put her hand up’ to have Shakira and her twin brother placed with her. But when the twins kept getting into trouble in school, fighting and getting suspended, her aunt ‘had enough’.
Shakira and her brother were placed with strangers instead, but placements broke down and she was moved every six months. Her brother went to juvie for ‘robberies, stealing cars and that kind of thing,’ and they were separated, placed back together, then separated again. ‘He lost control,’ she says, ‘and did whatever he wanted to do.’
She now lives in a ‘resi’, a residential care home with a rotating team of carers who stay with her and another girl for 24-hour shifts. The home is operated by a private company whose vision (according to its website) ‘is to provide children and young people in care with individualised, therapeutic, residential services in Australia.’ Out of the whole company, she says, she has been there the longest. The carers don’t stay for long. They go on leave, or they quit, or retire. They do the shopping, prepare food and buy clothes, but they are ‘not like a mum and dad.’ As Shakira is subject to a Long-Term Guardianship Order, she expects to be in residential care until she turns eighteen.
Shakira is part Aboriginal, but when I ask which community she is from, she hesitates. ‘My mob? Um, I’m not sure. In NSW somewhere. Tareedi, Tarinki or something like that?’
She was in Brisbane Youth Detention Centre in Wacol earlier this year, but only for a week, ‘because I didn’t do as bad as other people have done, so they just put me on bail.’ She says detention was ‘basically like being in one foster home and just staying there.’ Sisters Inside got Shakira a lawyer and she received a caution for eleven counts of ‘enter premises.’ Her twin brother is serving a sentence of four months in detention, but ‘he has been there a bit longer than that because they can’t find a placement for him.’ When he gets out he will not be allowed to see Shakira because of the influence he has on her.
Her parents stopped speaking to her for two years because they were on drugs. She doesn’t talk to her aunty anymore except briefly when she is having visits with her sisters, who still live with her. She will say hello to her, she tells me, but she doesn’t tell her what has been going on. She doesn’t know she’s been in juvie. When I ask who her most significant adult is, she says she doesn’t have one. ‘I just have mates, other kids.’ She runs away from her placement a lot, she says. They call the cops but the cops don’t really do anything about it.
She tells me she got into some more trouble recently and was sentenced for ‘a couple of cars and stealing and stuff.’ She received a five-month Probation Order with conditions that she be of good behaviour and attend school. Unfortunately, attending school is something that is not currently possible – she got expelled from her last one, and no other schools in the area will take her. I ask her if there is anyone currently trying to get her back into the education system. She says she asks about it sometimes, but her carers just say ‘have you asked your CSO?’ She seems to be describing buck passing between the residential carers and the department. I ask her if the carers talk to her about the trouble she’s been in. Not really, she says, but they do know a lot about her. ‘They have a big document,’ she says. ‘They know more about me than I know about them. It’s scary.’
Then she appears to change the subject. ‘I recently got attacked by a police dog’, she says. ‘I got like, all here.’ She shows me red welts on her arms. ‘And on my stomach. I was with mates. We went into a house and someone caught us and we started running and police came and I got trapped in this little corner and then this dog came and attacked me and then we all got arrested.’ She says they were charged with ‘enter premises and a car.’ Later, one of the Sisters Inside workers tells me that Shakira’s phone was taken away ‘to have iTunes installed’ and given back to her with GPS tracker in it. Her carers could see her location through the tracker and alerted the police. ‘The dog got her as she was climbing over a fence.’
It is girls like Shakira who Debbie Kilroy, founder and CEO of women prisoners’ advocacy group Sisters Inside, fears will be pipelined into the new women’s prison that has opened at Gatton. Southern Queensland Correctional Centre used to be a men’s prison, and is run by Serco, the company notorious for running Australia’s controversial offshore detention centres. The Gatton prison has been operating as a women’s facility since September, with inmates being moved there from Brisbane Women’s Correctional Centre in Wacol. It is the first Serco-operated women’s prison in the world.
A huge proportion of Queensland’s female prison population is Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, with that group making up only 4 per cent of the state’s population but 36 per cent of the women’s prison population. The Australian prison population has soared over the last decade, with 42,855 people in full time custody as of June 2018, compared to 25,968 in 2007. But while the general incarceration rate is on the increase, the figure for Aboriginal women has skyrocketed – with an increase of almost 250% for prisoners in that demographic since the 1991 Royal Commission. The report tabled by the Royal Commission sought to reduce the overrepresentation of Aboriginal Australians in custody and the number of black deaths behind bars; instead, the situation has only got worse, with over 400 deaths in custody since 1991. One of those was 22-year-old Yamatji woman Ms Dhu, who was imprisoned for unpaid fines in Western Australia in 2014 and died from an infection resulting from a fractured rib, a domestic violence injury, despite repeatedly asking for medical attention.
A major inquiry into Indigenous incarceration, which reported in March 2018, found that the overwhelming majority of Aboriginal women who are incarcerated are victims of crime, particularly family violence and sexual assault. The Human Rights Law Centre’s 2017 report into the crisis of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women’s growing over-imprisonment analyses the factors driving the soaring rates, arguing that poverty, insecure housing, mental illness and disability intersect with discriminatory laws, policies and practices. Police and Child Safety take a punitive approach to delinquent behaviour by minors that parents never would, leading to short periods in prison, often on remand, which cumulatively serve to perpetuate disadvantage and compound existing trauma for young women. There is an abundance of evidence that prison does not rehabilitate, but harms women, and increases their chances of reoffending. Community organisations at a local and national level are calling for governments to adopt non-punitive approaches to minor offences and to prioritise preventive and early intervention strategies; to shelve the ‘tough-on-crime’ approach.
The Palaszczuk government has defended its decision to open a new women’s prison, saying the move will ease overcrowding in the other prisons and allow women better conditions and better access to programs and services. Serco is also part of a consortium currently building a 1700-bed prison on the outskirts of Grafton in northern NSW. When it opens in 2020 it will be the biggest prison this country has ever seen.
Vicky* wears a black hoodie and enormous hoop earrings. She is Māori, born in New Zealand, she says, and abandoned by her parents at the age of two. She was adopted and her new parents brought her to Brisbane with their seven biological children. Life with her adoptive family was ‘shit’ – she describes herself as the Cinderella of the house, always feeling like an outsider. ‘I used to get hidings from my mum,’ she says, ‘real bad ones.’
When she was 14, Vicky ran away to live on the street. A community of teenagers camped out in the Brisbane CBD took her in. Together they begged for money on the street, slept on the footpath, on benches or ‘just anywhere.’ They drank goon or Passion Pop and regularly got moved on by the police. ‘Usually they would come looking for a specific person,’ she says, ‘and give a move-on direction to everyone else.’ She remembers her time on the street as ‘bad and good at the same time.’
Her first time in juvie was last year and then ‘it went from days to weeks to months.’ Being in juvie was good, because she knew everyone there; ‘there was TV, your own personal space and somewhere to sleep.’ The kids were required to attend school but not to hand in assignments – so, she says, ‘it wasn’t really school.’ She still has a charge which has yet to be finalised, an armed robbery, which has just been committed to the District Court.
At the moment, Vicky is living in a sort of halfway house – a place ‘where girls go when they come out of juvie and have nowhere to go.’ Her parents support her when she has to go to court. They are working with Child Safety in relation to Vicky and one of her brothers.
While Vicky was in juvie, her birth mother phoned her. It was a surprise and she didn’t know who she was speaking to. It turned out her adoptive mother had contacted her birth mother and told her everything. I ask her if she feels safe to go back to her adoptive parents’ house on bail. ‘Yeah,’ she says. ‘Things are different now. I was fourteen when I did all this. Now I’m nearly sixteen.’
Across all Australian states and territories, the minimum age of criminal liability is ten, which is far below the international average of 14. However, there is a presumption that a child between the ages of ten and fourteen is criminally incapable. For a court to find a child under 14 guilty of an offence, the prosecution must adduce evidence that the child knew the act to be wrong. Despite this safeguard, the criminalisation and incarceration of very young children is widely felt to be inappropriate, entrenching disadvantage and increasing the chances of the young offender going into the adult prison system later on. It is Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children who are most affected by the low age, with these children 25 times more likely to be in detention and 17 times more likely to be on a youth justice order than non-Indigenous children. Amnesty International and the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child say the minimum age of criminal liabilityshould be raised to 12 in Australia.
In Queensland, until February 2018, it was possible for seventeen-year-olds to go to adult prison. Lawyers and youth advocates campaigned for years to change this, arguing that it was harmful to young people to be incarcerated in adult conditions and exposed to hardened criminals. On 12 February this year the law changed, and seventeen-year-olds held in adult prisons were moved into youth detention centres.
Ellen*, who is now eighteen, did three months in ‘the big women’s’ (Brisbane Women’s Correctional Centre) as a seventeen-year-old prior to the law changing. Before going in, she lived on the street, smoking pot every day and using ‘the gear’ (ice). ‘It wasn’t an addiction,’ she says, ‘but every time I could get it, I would smoke it.’ Ellen’s parents passed away in the US when she was eight, and she and her siblings were sent to Brisbane to live with an uncle. There were ‘a lot of family problems, arguments’ in the house, and at fourteen, she moved out – living on the street at first, then with a mate; as she puts it, ‘basically couch surfing’. She first came before a court when she was fifteen or sixteen for an armed robbery charge.
In Brisbane Women’s Correctional Centre, she worked in the workshop, cutting up rags and sewing. She was also given the option of studying and took the opportunity of embarking on Grade 11. She was released on a supervised order, but ‘stuffed up again and went back in.’ The law had changed by then and she was placed in juvie. She much preferred the big women’s, she says – there is so much drama in juvie, and in the big women’s you get a lot more freedom. Ellen is staying with an aunt and went back into school three weeks ago. She’s still on a supervised order, which requires her to be home by 7pm unless she is participating in a Sisters Inside program, like the art session the girls are here for tonight. She blames her past trouble on ‘the wrong crowd’ and ‘not making the right choices’. She says when she is out late at night she gets tempted to do crime. ‘I don’t know why’, she says. ‘I just get tempted.’ I ask if she thinks she will go back into custody. ‘I hope not,’ she says. ‘But I can’t promise myself I won’t.’
Staying busy helps. She does boxing through Police Citizens Youth Clubs (PCYC) and has started writing some music. I ask Ellen if she knows about the Barista Sisters program that Sisters Inside is running. The program has baristas training marginalised young women to make and serve coffees from a coffee cart set up outside the Sisters Inside office. ‘Yeah,’ she says, ‘Debbie was telling me about it.’
I mention that there’s a lot of interest in prison issues right now because of the new private women’s prison that has just opened. The government quietly announced the conversion of Southern Queensland Correctional Centre to a women’s prison on 3 July, in a few lines at the end of a press release about the expansion of Bollaron Training and Correctional Centre. The only publicity it has received has resulted from Sisters Inside’s campaign against the criminalisation of young women, like those I’ve spoken to tonight.
‘New prison?’ she says. ‘Where?’
It’s news to a lot of people.
* Names have been changed