Increasing female imprisonment rates has in many countries shone a spotlight on the conditions and policies affecting women in conflict with the law. Australia is no different. In this blog, Mary Stathopoulos from the Australian Centre for the Study of Sexual Assault looks at approaches to address women prisoners’ histories of sexual abuse.
In Australia, an increase in female imprisonment has seen a focus on the conditions and policies as they relate to female prisoners. A review of data collected between 1995 and 1999 by the Australian Bureau of Statistics calculated that female imprisonment had increased by 68%. In comparison, during the same period, men’s imprisonment saw a 21% increase. Stuart Ross and Kay Forster calculated that if these rates continue, by 2036 there would be equal numbers of men and women in Australian prisons.
Questions regarding women’s treatment in a system built specifically for male populations have highlighted unique characteristics that women bring to custodial environments. Specifically a large percentage of women in prison have a history of child sexual abuse and adult sexual and physical victimisation. Accurate prevalence statistics of sexual abuse and assault are notoriously problematic due to underreporting. However the available evidence suggests that women in prison have higher rates of child sexual abuse victimisation histories than women in the general community.
Child sexual abuse is relatively prevalent among the Australian population. In a review of seven Australian studies, just over 1 in 4 women (27.5%) in the general population disclosed an experience of child sexual abuse. In 2008, research by the School of Public Health and Community Medicine at the University of New South Wales into the sexual health and behaviour of 199 female prisoners in New South Wales found that 59% had experienced some form of sexual coercion. There were also high rates of revictimisation in this sample, with 13% of the women reporting ten or more subsequent sexually coercive experiences. With these traumatic experiences come further social concerns such as issues with parenting, employment, housing, substance abuse and mental illness.
Prison environments can be devastating for people with a history of sexual victimisation. Prisons are a place where power, control and surveillance are every day aspects. Punitive practices such as strip-searching can exacerbate the trauma from sexual abuse and cause victims/survivors to respond in ways that draw further punitive responses from prison staff. The cycle of trauma and traumatic environments can undermine women’s capacity to feel safe and to face the responsibility of their offending.
So in order to address women’s offending, an environment more conducive to rehabilitation and safety may be required. The question becomes, what custodial policies can be implemented for the successful housing and rehabilitation of women with sexual abuse histories? How can women offenders with a history of abuse be equipped with what they need in order to reintegrate into society with a sense of safety and responsibility?
In 2012, the Australian Centre for the Study of Sexual Assault published a paper Addressing women’s victimisation histories in custodial settings which included a discussion about trauma-informed care and practice, which is becoming an important approach in many human service organisations.
Trauma-informed care and practice services do not directly treat symptoms of sexual abuse and assault, but instead are designed to be sensitive to the possibility that the service user has been exposed to violence in their lives. This approach applies a ‘trauma-lens’ to all programs and practices within an institution.
The paper also explores women’s gendered pathways to crime and how a gendered approach might be conceptualised in a prison environment. A gendered pathway approach looks specifically at the gendered reality of women’s lives. For example, a large proportion of women in prison are primary caregivers to children. Managing their anxiety about their children’s welfare while in prison is good gender responsive practice. This approach recognises that men’s and women’s needs while in prison are qualitatively different, and that systems built to accommodate men may not work for women prisoners.
This paper is concerned mainly with Australian prisons, with New South Wales highlighted, but also includes a consideration of international literature. Read it here: Addressing women’s victimisation histories in custodial settings
Mary Stathopoulos joined the Australian Centre for the Study of Sexual Assault in 2010 as a Senior Research Officer after completing her honours thesis focusing on gender, cultural images and young women’s sexual agency. Her current research interests include sexual violence, violence against women and corrective service systems approaches to imprisoned female victim/survivors of sexual abuse.
The Australian Centre for the Study of Sexual Assault aims to improve access to current information on sexual assault in order to assist policy makers and others interested in this area to develop evidence-based strategies to prevent, respond to, and ultimately reduce the incidence of sexual assault. The Centre is funded by the Australian Government Department of Social Services and is hosted by the Australian Institute of Family Studies.
Find out more about PRI’s work to support women in the criminal justice system, and to promote and implement the UN Bangkok Rules.
Your views and experience
We’d be very interested to hear from readers about programmes or initiatives in other countries which response to the needs of women offenders and women in prison with histories of sexual abuse. Please do let us know by posting a comment below or contacting us directly.