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Woods, Sue --- "Sistas: Koori Women in Custody" [1999] IndigLawB 99; (1999) 4(25) Indigenous Law Bulletin 28

Sistas: Koori Women in Custody

By Sue Woods

On the weekend, I caught up with a Koori woman I haven't seen for a while because she has been in Mulawa Women's Correctional Centre for the last six months. I showed her some statistics on Indigenous women in prison and we yarned for a while about what these figures really mean in human terms. It's not a very comfortable feeling to realise that you are a statistic and that your life and the lives of many other Koori women inside present a picture of desperation and despair.


Donna[1] grew up in a small town in western NSW She comes from a big Koori family with branches in most towns in north-western NSW. Many of her cousins, uncles and aunts have been caught up in the custodial roundabout, beginning in the juvenile justice system and graduating to the adult correctional system as soon as they are old enough. Some years ago, one of Donnas relatives was found dead in a police cell in the small town the family grew up in. He was 16 years old. Although his death was investigated by the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, and the circumstances surrounding his hanging were found to be very suspicious, no person was charged with any crime. It seemed to his family that not only were they up against the NSW Police Service, but that the NSW judiciall system was not going to acknowledge the boy's death as a murder, and therefore no-one was going to be held responsible.

The consequences of Donnas personal history have been profound and far-reaching; she and many others like her have grown up with a strong sense of being in enemy territory. While most white kids were being raised to respect the Police and to look for a police officer if they were in trouble, all the little Koori kids knew to keep out of the way of the 'gungies', to watch their backs, keep quiet and hide from Police. Criminal behavior, drug and alcohol problems, family violence and sexual abuse had to be kept inside the family or the community at all costs. If you went to the Police for assistance, you might be sentencing another black person to death; the person you accused might end up suffering the same fate as many other Aboriginal people who had been dragged into lonely police cells in rural Australia and never seen again. Earlier still, older people in the Aboriginal community used to see Police acting as agents of the Aborigines Protection Board and breaking up many Koori families. The Police were not seen as peace keepers, but as a threat.

In this scenario, Donna and many other Aboriginal women and children have grown up having to fend for themselves. Traditionally, it was their brothers and uncles who would defend them against violence and son out a husband if he was giving their sister problems. However, this practice has broken down as family structures have been worn away by the effects of colonisation and separation of children from natural parents.


According to 1993-4 Victorian statistics, Aboriginal women were 3.6 times more likely to be raped and 6 times more likely to be assaulted than non-Aboriginal women.[2] Inside Mulawa and Emu Plains prisons today, most Koori women have horror stories of how they were sexually and physically abused during childhood and adolescence, and of their powerlessness to escape this fate, or to protect their younger sisters, cousins and nieces from the same treatment. Sadly, it is often older male relatives, the traditional defenders of women, who are now the perpetrators of violence against their own families. The stories span several generations, and it is clear that the older women have been unable to protect their children from the same type of abuse which they themselves have suffered.

Community secrets, particularly those concerning sexual abuse, have been kept for many years, and it is only recently that some of these cans of worms have been opened. The result in some communities has been a major breakdown in family and community relations. Inside women's prisons, these kind of incidents are more readily discussed, because they are part of common experience, and there is some cold comfort in that shared understanding.


The latest Australian Institute of Criminology statistics show that Aboriginal women are being imprisoned more often for violent and drug-related crimes than they were ten years ago.[3] The highest number of NSW court appearances by Aboriginal people in the April-June 1998 period occurred in Dubbo, Blacktown, Sydney, Walgett, Moree, Kempsey or Bourke.[4] Given that there are more Aboriginal people in Sydney and Blacktown than in any other population centre in NSW[5] one would expect more court appearances in those areas. However, the court statistics for North Western NSW suggest a much higher arrest rate in country towns than in urban areas.[6]

Stories told in Mulawa by Koori women indicate that their lives in these country towns have been a living Hell due to the combined effects of unchecked family violence and harassment by country police. It would seem that things have not changed much for families like Donna's. It is little wonder then, that these are also the towns with growing rates of teenage suicide in Aboriginal communities. It is also no surprise to hear women prisoners speaking of their drug and alcohol problems and the difficulties they have in staying clean and sober when they are haunted by the experiences of their childhood and adolescent years. It is sad when young Koori girls say that they favour oversize sports clothes that make them indistinguishable from the boys. To wear any other type of clothing is `just asking for trouble'.


There is hardly a single Koori woman in prison who does not fit the recidivist pattern. The circumstances which lead these women to be imprisoned are clearly not being effectively addressed, because they continue to re-offend and to return to dysfunctional lifestyles upon their release. Imprisonment is not serving as a deterrent, nor as rehabilitation, but rather as a break from an otherwise chaotic life.

I have collected women from the prison gates on release on a number of occasions, and each time they are determined to stay out of trouble, hopeful of this time making a new start, and vowing never to go back `inside'. The problem, however, is that the outside world has not changed, and the frustration and bitterness and fear return very quickly. The same oldd situations prompt the same old negative reactions, and before they know it, they are back on the roller coaster.

These women have been damaged by life in a way that is almost inconceivable to most Australians. Often a woman's family history will reveal an accumulation of trauma that defies belief. Murder, suicide, rape, violence and drug and alcohol abuse are often so much a part of their lives that even in a peaceful harmonious existence or relationship, they are emotionally dysfunctional. They seem to survive on nervous energy and adrenalin and so have been rendered almost unfit for a quiet, productive life.

Koori Women in Custody Support Group

This group was formed in January 1997 after, the group's founder members organised a public seminar at Westmead Hospital on Mental Health Issues for Indigenous Women in Custody. The group set up a monthly visiting day at Mulawa Womeris Correctional Centre and maintained regular contact with Koori Women prisoners. The problems most frequently raised with the Support Group were women prisoners' contact with their children and other family members, post-release accommodation and transport, and personal issues relating to drug and alcohol abuse and recidivism. Unfortunately, the group folded in 1998 due to a lack of support from both the Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities; Government funding to employ a support group coordinator was not forthcoming, and group members were burnt out by the whole experience.

The Koori Women in Custody Support Group, however, was successful in highlighting the need for better services for Indigenous women prisoners. In July 1999, the Department of Corrective Services provided funds to Yulawirri Nurai Indigenous Association Inc to operate an Aboriginal Women's Post-Release Program at Emu Plains and Mulawa Women's Correctional Centre.

Sue Woods is Chairperson of the Wirringa Baiya Aboriginal Women's Legal Centre, former President oftheAboriginal Deaths in Custody Watch Committee and former Secretary of the Koori Women in Custody Support Group. She works as a Project Officer in the Aboriginal Community Programmes section of the NSW Department of Education and Training. Wirringa Baiya Aboriginal Women's Legal Centre may be contacted on (02) 9569 3847 or Freecall: 1800 686587.

[1] Not her real name.

[2] S Smallacombe & M McKay Aboriginal Women as Offenders and Victims: the case of Victoria! (1996) 3 (80) 1LB 17.

[3] See A Grant 'Imprisonment of Indigenous Women in Australia 1988-1998' p 30, this issue of 1LB.

[4] Aboriginal Justice Advisory Council, Update Report: Local Court Appearances Finalised' Aboriginal People Appearing April, Mats June 1998 (1999), 9.

[5] According to ABS statistics, there were 17,772 Aboriginal women in Sydney in 1996, 753 in far Western NSW and 5927 in the North Western area. Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics website at cwww.abs.govau>'1996 Census of Population and HousingBasic Community Profiles NSW' (1999).

[6] Above n 4.

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