The Australian prison system does little to rehabilitate women offenders and instead traps many in a cycle of crime, anti-social behaviour and incarceration, a panel has heard.

The Wicked Women Uncensored talk, as part of International Women’s Day activities at the University of Technology Sydney, scrutinised themes of feminine violence, anger, and autonomy, tackling how society responds to women who make it uncomfortable and operate outside conventional perceptions of how they should behave.

“For women in custody, there’s so much damage done in there. If you didn’t go in with a mental illness, you’ll come out with one,” Gloria Larman, chief executive of the Women’s Justice Network (WJN) told the audience.

Asked if women had any say in their lives in jail, she replied: “Do they have any? I would suspect not.”

UTS Law Professor Penny Crofts, an expert in criminal law, models of culpability and the legal regulation of the sex industry, said crimes by women are often seen as an “offence against femininity” – creating a model of “wickedness”.

“As a society, we don’t understand women who commit crimes, so we simplify their motivations into either sadness, madness, or pure badness,” Professor Crofts added.

Other academics and activists said the system of female incarceration needed immediate change.

“The justice system is broken completely,” Frances Drake, a lived experience mentor, case worker and board member of the Women’s Justice Network, said.

Drake, herself a former inmate, served her first sentence at 18, and said she “got stuck in that revolving door” of the criminal justice system, going in and out of correctional facilities.

After losing her son, husband, and dealing with the process of losing her mother, it took 16 months for her to get access to a mental health specialist. She was then medicated, but she said it made things worse and she was placed in an isolated cell. Following this, she said she was put on highly addictive drugs that she is still weaning herself off.

Drake said she witnessed sexual abuse faced by women first-hand by a prison guard, and that women inmates were blamed and “ostracised” for the abuse while “other officers cover[ed] for him [the perpetrator] many times”.

Men see incarceration as a battle of honour while women find it humiliating.

She also claimed women guards were sometimes violent towards prisoners and that she had seen a “high-ranking female officer slamming a female inmate to the ground and forcefully holding her down”.

She claimed whistle-blowing wardens were simply told to “shut up or leave” when they spoke out about abuse.

“There’s no real wellbeing in there,” she told the audience. 

“When women were suspected to be on their period, they were ordered to remove their tampons for strip searches… we were constantly humiliated which started another revolving door of anti-social behaviour. 

“Men see incarceration as a battle of honour while women find it humiliating.”

When men go to prison, their wives usually support them and look after the family, the panelists heard. Women, on the other hand, are usually left with no support system. 

Larman used the example of the fullness of men’s prisons’ visiting rooms compared to the empty ones in women’s prisons.

Drake added that as soon as a woman is told she’s serving time “your loss is immediate”.

“For a man to be seen as monstrous, the threshold is much higher than it is with women due to the lack of villainous women in popular culture,” Professor Crofts said, adding it is “incomprehensible” when women commit crimes due to this lack of representation.

Sara Kowal, deputy director at Eleos Justice and vice-president of the Capital Punishment Justice Project, said there was a gender disparity inside death rows in prisons outside Australia.

She said “death rows are not built for women,” with women often being physically and metaphorically “put in the corner”. They lack access to bathrooms and feminine hygiene facilities and face coercive sexual violence at the hands of male guards.

Main image AI generated with GenCraft.