Aborigines, feminists, unionists and socialists unite to demand: No New Women’s Prison!

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Within days of the last NSW Budget, the No New Women’s Prison (NNWP) Campaign was born. In the Budget Papers, the State Government announced it had set aside $42 million for a new “Correctional Facility” for women at Windsor. Ray Jackson, one of the campaigners, reports on a feisty grassroots campaign. Ray is a member of the Freedom Socialist Party (FSP) and a founder of the Indigenous Social Justice Association (ISJA).

News of well developed plans to build an additional purpose-built women’s prison at Windsor came as a complete shock to community activists. The NNWP Campaign very quickly gathered support from a broad coalition of more than 100 local, national and international organisations, including ISJA, Radical Women and the FSP. The NNWP Campaign began publicising the issues, lobbying members of the NSW Parliament, circulating a petition, rallying on the streets to stop the construction of the proposed new facility and demanding that the money be diverted into humane alternatives to imprisonment. Campaign activists met with both the Department of Corrective Services and Bob Debus, the relevant Minister, to raise our demands. We also called for a comprehensive evaluation of practical alternatives to imprisonment.

Heading in the wrong direction. The response of the Carr Government to human crises is to build more cages for poor women and men. It has recently opened a 300-bed men’s facility, also at Windsor, and is planning a similar sized mixed facility at Kempsey on the NSW north coast. Prisons are institutions of social control through inhumane punishment rather than rehabilitation. Growing unemployment, poverty, racism and alienation are to blame. All Australian governments implement anti-community, anti-people policies which use economic rationalist, rather than humanitarian, criteria to measure program outcomes.

Women are frequently incarcerated for “crimes” of economic desperation, drug dependency, or for defending themselves against brutal husbands or boyfriends. NNWP Campaign presented these clear and cogent arguments against the construction of a new women’s jail. It advocates the construction of more Transitional Centres where women with short sentences and minimum-security classifications can live in a non-prison situation. There are currently two of these centres — one at Parramatta and the other as an annex of the Emu Plains prison — but together they hold only 20-30 inmates.

A string of reports and policy statements all recognise the absolute necessity of reducing the overall number of women held in custody and the urgent need to investigate alternatives to incarceration, especially for Indigenous women. Recommendation number 92 of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody calls for imprisonment to be limited to a sanction of last resort. The 1985 Report of the Taskforce on Women Prisoners, the 1995 NSW Labor Party Policy and the 1998 Report of the Children of Imprisoned Parents Inquiry all urge strong measures to halt the inexorable increase in the numbers of women prisoners.

As of April 2000, there were between 460 and 480 women in prison in NSW, an increase of 60% in just two years. The rise in Indigenous women inmates has increased more alarmingly still. Indigenous women now make up 23% of women in NSW prisons, even though they make up a much smaller proportion of the female population of NSW. The number of women on remand has also dramatically increased from 21.5% of the prison population in the mid-’90s to 35% today. There has been a similar increase in the male imprisonment rate.

Mass protest forces Inquiry. The Campaign’s strong stand against the construction of the new facility sparked a powerful community-led push for an inquiry into the female prison system. Last November, the Legislative Council of the NSW Parliament responded to these demands and voted to establish an “Inquiry into the Increase in the Prisoner Population.” This Inquiry will “investigate the wider social implications and the ramifications of incarceration, and the effectiveness of incarceration both as a tool of punishment and as a means of effectively reducing crime.” Inquiry Members will visit NSW prisons to see and hear first hand about life inside.

A world first in Westminster-style “democracy,” the Council also voted for a moratorium on the construction of a State prison. For NSW, this was the first time where the entire Opposition and all members on the cross benches voted against the Government of the day.

The Carr Government is refusing to wait for the outcome of the Inquiry and is proceeding with its plans regardless. This petulant display is cynical, arrogant and has incensed opponents of the prison. Undeterred, the NNWP Campaign is escalating the struggle for alternatives to the imprisonment of women. The ongoing petition campaign continues to draw massive support. Over 800 people attended two recent rallies. At the first of these, Josephine Fisher, Vice-President of ISJA, called on the Carr Government to accept and respect the moratorium and make positive and practical moves to end the massive over-representation of Indigenous women in NSW prisons.

To bring further pressure on the Cabinet to heed the voice and the vision of the people, the NNWP Campaign is currently holding discussions with the Construction Division of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union to either place a total green ban on the building of a new women’s prison or to at least to hold up construction until the Parliamentary Inquiry hands down its final report.

NNWP Campaigners are proud of the collective strength we have built around this issue. But we are not prepared to settle for the concessions we have squeezed from the system so far. We are very much aware that the struggle has a long way to go. We will continue the fight for fair and just social outcomes for NSW women who face incarceration. This means access to well paid jobs, free education, quality health care and affordable child care and housing. We insist that the $42 million — and much more — be spent on these services, not a new women’s prison.

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