Mental health behind bars (part two): why women prisoners are set up to fail

Freelance journalist Inga Ting writes:

Incidents of mental illness in our prison system are disproportionately high — particularly among female inmates. In part two of a special report into the NSW female prison population (read part one here), Inga Ting examines how they find themselves behind bars and why they are disadvantaged while they are there …

Jennifer (not her real name), a mother and university graduate, describes an abusive upbringing — “physical and emotional abuse on a daily basis”.

“I ran away from home when I was 16 to get away from my mother. My father died of alcoholism when I was five years old. I found his body in the kitchen,” says Jennifer, who spent six weeks in Silverwater Women’s Correctional Centre. “Through my late teens and early 20s I was a heroin addict and s-x worker and homeless and all of those things that you are when you live that way.”

Then in February this year, she was hit by a motorbike when she was crossing the road. The police officer who came to take her statement informed her there was an outstanding warrant for her arrest over a property crime committed more than a decade ago, when she was drug-addicted and living on the streets.

Life stories of violence and disadvantage, where the line between victim and offender is blurred and broken, are common among women prisoners. Up to 85% of women inmates are survivors of s-xual abuse or incest; 70% are victims of physical violence; 66% have a drug or alcohol addiction; 40% have attempted suicide; and 30% were removed from their families as children.

Poverty, homelessness and welfare dependence bring women into greater contact with authorities, however the characteristics of women offenders suggest that women actually pose little threat to the community. At the time of the 2009 NSW Inmate Census, homicide and related offences were the most serious offence for only 7.6 % of women inmates; most were imprisoned for non-violent offences related to poverty and drug dependence.

Because the nature of women’s imprisonment reflects women’s position in society, they often suffer disproportionately in prison. Kat Armstrong, spokesperson for the Women in Prison Advocacy Network NSW and a former inmate, points out that a large proportion of women entering prison are single parents or primary caregivers, if not for their own children then for their partner’s.

“The frustration and the sheer anguish of being separated from your children, not knowing where your children are, who’s looking after them — women have severe disturbances as a result of that,” Armstrong says.

Even women who do have partners are often not financially or emotionally supported during their incarceration. This is in contrast to many male prisoners whose partners on the outside continue to take care of their family and property while they are in jail. Partners also contribute to inmates’ jail accounts and send clothing and other personal items, Armstrong says.

“You go to a men’s visiting section and it’s full of women and children. You go to a women’s visiting section and you could count on one hand how many men are there, as in partners,” she says. “[The partners] either leave or [are] in jail as well or they come for the beginning and then can’t deal with it and don’t come any more.”

Inmates who do not receive help from the outside must support themselves entirely on prison wages. With the money they earn (prisoners are paid between 60 cents and $1.50 per hour, depending on the type of work), they must buy their own toiletries, underwear and clothing when prison-issued clothing needs replacing, and other items such as cigarettes.

Women prisoners are also disadvantaged by a wage system that values the labour of prisoners over their education. “The majority of women need the money so they’ll try to work rather than do programs or education, [which is] one of the lowest paying wages … [at] $22 a week,” Armstrong explains.

In the end, Armstrong says, most women leave prison as unskilled and uneducated as when they entered. Faced with rebuilding their lives in a society that heavily stigmatises women ex-prisoners, it is little surprise that many find the obstacles insurmountable.

Jennifer is one of a minority of women who had a family and a home to return to upon her release. Nevertheless, she says, the damage to her life and health has been significant: “I’ve pretty much lost my entire social circle … I’ve lost a tremendous amount of respect from people that I used to know. I’ve lost a tremendous amount of respect from my son; it’s made parenting him quite difficult.”

This is a system that sets women up to fail, prison reformers argue, and the statistics seem to agree. According to the 2010 report of the Auditor-General, about 43% of NSW offenders return to prison within two years. Other statistics, which take into account re-offenders who receive non-custodial sentences, place the rate of recidivism closer to 68%.

With the closure of psychiatric institutions and the failure of governments to divert savings into community-based support services, the reality is that for a tiny minority, prison has become the best and sometimes the only option.

Renee (not her real name) was 14 when she was first admitted to a psychiatric hospital. Now in her 30s, she has lived in 10 psychiatric hospitals and served two jail sentences. She was re-arrested earlier this year after setting fire to her mattress at the psychiatric hospital where she lived. She is now at Silverwater awaiting sentencing.

“She keeps doing all this stuff to go back to jail … she stopped taking her medications, smashed the TV,” says her sister, Lynette (last name withheld). “I spoke to her today and she said to me there’s a part of her that keeps wanting to go back to jail … It’s like jail became safe.”

Renee is diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, epilepsy and personality disorder. She also has a history of substance abuse. She was first incarcerated in 2008 on assault charges, after throwing coffee on a nurse. She spent 11 weeks at Silverwater.

Less than six months after her release, she was jailed again on a second assault charge. Only after she was released for the second time did Renee confide to her sister that she had been held down and r-ped by three women inmates in the prison’s mental health unit. “She didn’t tell the [prison] staff … she was too scared to tell anyone in authority,” Lynette says.

Renee is now back in the unit where she says she was r-ped. Lynette shakes her head in disbelief.

“I [find] it very hard to understand how you could feel safe in that environment and want to go back into it,” she says. “But one thing … she said [was that] some of the prison officers treated her better than some of the mental health workers … and I’m wondering if that’s why she wants to go back to jail — because she gets treated better there than in the mental health system.”

Eileen Baldry, an associate professor at the University of NSW and a long-standing critic of the prison system, says this may well be the case.

“I have heard from many parents and families of prisoners who have mental illness … that this is one of the only times that their [family member] … has actually received ongoing mental health care and has become sane,” Dr Baldry says. “In my view [this] says more about the terrible state of healthcare for poor and disadvantaged people in our community… People shouldn’t have to go to prison to get … mental health care.”

Yet prisons have become the de facto therapeutic dumping place for huge numbers of people with serious and complex health issues — which is not the fault of prisons, but of governments and the community, Dr Baldry says.

“I think the bigger picture is that we as a society and a community have to think differently … [We] have to understand that it’s no light thing to send somebody to prison,” she says. “Sending someone like that to prison doesn’t deter them the next time. It doesn’t teach them a lesson because often when they commit a crime they’re under the influence of drugs or they are having a psychotic episode or their intellectual capacity is fairly low and it doesn’t compute for them.”

Meanwhile, women such as Renee, deemed too hard to handle, continue to be passed from one institution to the next, into jail and back again.

“The local mental health services can’t cater to them. I’ve tried to get help in the middle of the night for my sister and … they tell you to call the police and you don’t want to call the police because you know what the outcome will be,” Lynette says.

“My sister is really hard to handle but there’s a really beautiful side to her… She may never lead the … life that you and I lead but if there could be some normal life for her… They’re either in [psychiatric hospitals] or they’re in jail.

“Society can’t cope with them and sometimes they are dangerous to other people, but why should jail be the answer?”

*Inga Ting is an associate of the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism.

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