The Andrews Labor government will spend an additional $1.8 billion on prisons and corrections in the next year, building a huge new maximum security prison for men and expanding the women’s prison at Ravenhall.
This is not because we are witnessing a crime spree in Victoria. The massive increase in the prison population is a direct result of tougher bail laws, which have led to a widely reported crisis in remand.
According to Corrections Victoria, the prison population increased overall by 81.5 percent between 2008 and 2018, while the number of people held on remand increased by 196 percent in the six years to March 2019. People being held on remand have not been convicted of any crime.
The draconian bail laws which have led to people being held in remand for long periods were a response to widely publicised crimes against women and have been justified on the basis of protecting women. But they have only served to increase the brutalisation and criminalisation of vulnerable women.
Almost half of the total population of incarcerated women in Victoria are on remand. Ninety percent of all women currently entering prison are being held on remand. About 70 percent of these women have children.
There is no shortage of studies showing a correlation between poverty, homelessness, drug use, domestic violence and incarceration for women. National research in 2012 found that more than half of women in prison had been sleeping rough or living in short-term accommodation in the month prior to being incarcerated. Not only that, but a new study by the Women’s Legal Service Victoria this year found that police were consistently misidentifying female victims of family violence as primary aggressors. This means that women who are survivors of violence and abuse are being arrested and locked up. These women can be held on remand for months, which often leads to the loss of jobs, housing and custody of children.
Structural racism means Aboriginal women are particularly affected. There has been a staggering 240 percent increase in the number of Aboriginal women incarcerated in Victorian prisons over the past five years. Trauma on top of intergenerational trauma locks these women into a brutal cycle with very little chance of escape. Ruth Barson, director of legal advocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre, told the Age, “Women, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, people with disabilities and people falling on tough times are hit hardest by punitive bail laws that have seen the number of people behind bars in this state skyrocket … The Andrews government is criminalising the very women it should be providing support to”.
The government’s announcement that more money will be spent on prisons is an indication that it is doubling down on its approach. Appearing to be just as tough as the Liberals on law and order is a top priority for Labor, whatever the cost for poor and vulnerable women.
And while advocacy groups consistently argue that access to affordable housing is the most significant factor in reducing the risk of women being locked up, the Andrew’s government continues with its plan to sell off public estates for profit. The increased budget for prisons alone could build 2,200 new housing units.
The legal system may appear to be broken, but the reality is it is working as intended. As Vicki Roach, Aboriginal activist for women in prison, said in a 2014 interview with Red Flag, “The entire system is rotten to the core, from the top down, and it all needs to come down. I’m not just talking about the prison system; the entire rotten capitalist system needs to come down”.