Speaking up for the sisters inside

Debbie Kilroy’s first encounter with the state came at an early age. At 14 years old, she was put in a youth facility for wagging school. “They thought locking me up would teach me a lesson. Well, it did, but not the one they thought.”

It was a brutal environment, in which the young people were powerless and without voice. “I spent a lot of time in isolation because the matron didn’t like me that much. I didn’t like her either.”

Kilroy stood up for herself as best she could. “They would tell us we were bad, then lock us in isolation. In my head I’d go, ‘Yeah, I’m bad, so I’ll show you how bad it can get.’ So we rose to the occasion.”

After being in and out of youth detention throughout her teens, she eventually landed in Brisbane’s notorious Boggo Road adult prison. While there, a friend and fellow inmate was murdered. After that, prison management experimented with a system of prisoner consultation. Kilroy became the convener of a prisoners’ committee dealing with young people at risk of being criminalised.

“Most of the women that I was in there with, I had also been in youth prison with – we knew it was a fast track to adult prison. We wanted to stop that”, she explains.

After her release in 1992, she established Sisters Inside to continue the work she started in prison. Sisters Inside, based in Brisbane, advocates for the rights of women in the criminal justice system. Importantly, it does so alongside women in prison.

What’s the number one issue facing women in prison?

“Well”, Kilroy says, “being behind bars, first and foremost”. A large part of what Sisters Inside does is about trying to keep people out of prison – defence lawyers, assistance with parole and working on alternatives to prison.

But Kilroy says things are getting worse. “Two decades ago, there were about 100 women in Queensland prisons. Now there are over 600. But there’s less crime in Queensland being committed than 20 years ago.”

If it’s not, in fact, about community safety, what is the expanding prison system about?

“It’s fear-mongering that allows the government to supposedly remove the rights of just a specific group – asylum seekers, bikies, sex offenders. But it’s really about eroding everyone’s rights.”

Despite being a lawyer herself, she often warns clients not to think the law will bring them justice. “Laws are implemented to target certain people. The law does not protect you – the law protects certain people”, she says.

There’s no clearer expression of this than the gross over-representation of Aboriginal women in prison. “Prisons in Darwin and north Queensland are predominantly full of Aboriginal women. They’re clearly targeted because of poverty, reactive violence and mental health issues”, Kilroy argues.

Many of these women cannot read or write. Kilroy explains that many women in prison are on remand and have no idea why they’re there, if they’ve been sentenced or for how long. “So what are we doing here? We’re actually locking up children, who are now adults that have had an education system that fundamentally failed them.”

Kilroy speaks a lot about the impact of criminalisation on children. The majority of female prisoners in Australia have children, with most being younger than 16.

“It’s children that pay the most – the stigma because they have a mother in prison. They’re taken into care, moved from home to home. And these children are criminalised; the cops are called on them all the time.”

She tells the story of the young Aboriginal girl who died trying to see her mother in prison. The residential care facility where she lived had promised that she could visit her mother that day, then abruptly refused to take her in.

Upset, she took the keys to the car and tried to drive herself there. The cops were called, and came racing down the street towards her with sirens blaring. The 13-year-old jammed on the accelerator, lost control of the car and smashed into a tree.

Kilroy speaks often in public about abolishing the prison system completely. But until that day, she says: “The priority is that we do not lose voice. The way we see it at Sisters Inside is that as long as there’s women in prison that have no voice, absolutely no voice at all, that we will never stop speaking up. We’re not going anywhere, we are not going to be quiet.”