Me and Sisters InsideI’m not an artist. I’m not a writer. I’m a white, tertiary-educated woman in a heterosexual relationship with excellent access to health and social services, should I need them. I have not known serious poverty. I do not have a criminal record. I will soon become a lawyer. I live in a community where many people who hold power are similar to me. How did I get here? What right do I have to speak? Some powerful women have suggested an answer to me: ‘work from where you are’. Sisters Inside is an organisation led by women in prison. Sisters provide practical support to address service gaps for women in the prison system and strategically advocate for the collective interests of women in prison. Their advocacy is informed by the need for services. For example, Sisters provide sexual assault counselling for 3,500 women annually and concurrently advocate strongly against the use of strip searches due to their re-traumatising effects on women.2 At the Sisters conference, some of the women who had been in prison shared their stories with us. A woman witnesses a friend give birth in a toilet cubicle, her stillborn child taken from her and discarded in a plastic bag. A woman hiding her tears at the death of her husband, to avoid being placed in solitary confinement as a suicide risk. A woman requires hip replacements after years of health mismanagement inside. A woman cries in a clothes shop after she is released because the sales assistant is polite to her. A woman’s daughter disowned her at age thirteen. A thick thread of trauma and abuse ran through all the women’s stories. Disconnected from the conference, outside of prison, on the page, in a world where you can pick your injustice, these stories may seem sensationalist. But at the conference, where emotions ran high, we came to understand why Sisters are ‘committed to believing women in the criminal justice system, [and] treating their experiences as valid’.3
We are driven by the needs of women in the criminal justice system, rather than by the expectations of prison authorities, the criminal justice system, governments or the wider society. This places us in a unique position to genuinely act in the interest of women in this system—to make strategic judgments about when and how to use our power and challenge any illegitimate exercise of power by the criminal justice system.4This is the power of Sisters: they recognise where the power lies, and in doing so, reclaim it.
Why prisons don’t workThe legal and policy purposes of punishment in the Australian criminal justice system are rehabilitation, deterrence, retribution, community protection and denunciation.5 However, prisons do not sufficiently fulfill any of these purposes. For instance, going to prison actually increases the likelihood a person will go to prison again. Almost 60% of the people in prison in Australia have been there before, and imprisonment rates have been increasing for the last decade.6 This is partly because prisons lack appropriate services for rehabilitation, and in some cases exacerbate existing trauma, as reported through the Sisters sexual assault counseling service. This increase in imprisonment is also because of governments creating tough ‘law and order’ policies and new crimes.7 For example, ‘paperless arrests’, introduced in the Northern Territory in 2014, allow police to lock people up for short periods of time for minor infringements, such as failure to keep clean yards, without laying charges.8 The explicit policy purpose is to reduce police paperwork and take people off the street who may commit crimes later.9 Policies such as these increase contact with the criminal justice system and, rather than protecting communities, increase the potential for incarceration and repeat offending.10 Some of the most marginalised and vulnerable people in our communities are incarcerated—people who have mental health problems, substance dependence issues or housing needs.11 Over 80% of women in prison are survivors of physical abuse, or sexual abuse, or both.^12 Around two per cent of people in Australia are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander but twenty-seven per cent of prisoners in Australia are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.13 And in the last decade, the most rapid increase in prisoners has been Aboriginal women.14 The prison system discriminates. Prison even fails to provide a solution for the most serious offenders, such as those who are unlikely to be imprisoned for life,15 but who, after release, are unlikely to be rehabilitated or even deterred.16
How prisons do workWhilst not fulfilling their stated purposes, prisons are operating successfully as sites of power. Charandev Singh, a human rights advocate and paralegal with twenty-three years of experience working in response to deaths in custody, explains:
The prison system is not broken…it is operating how it always and continuously intended to operate. It breaks people. It amplifies the impact of harm on people’s lives. It fails to make anyone accountable… [It is] a system not capable of fundamental reform.17In her seminal 1998 work Masked Racism: Reflections on the Prison Industrial Complex, Angela Davis, a former prisoner and lifelong social activist, discussed how the interconnection of corporate and state interests has redefined the purpose of the prison system. She explains: prisons create the illusion that social problems are being solved; prison populations grow; prison infrastructure is built and must be maintained; the demand for support services swells; operations become privatised; profit is generated; state and private interests become intertwined.18 Prisoners become a commodity. At the Sisters Inside conference, Davis spoke powerfully about the evolution of the prison industrial complex today. A local example is the Sentenced to a Job program currently operative in the Northern Territory. In this program, low-security prisoners are employed and paid by private companies, typically as unskilled labour on construction projects. The program was introduced by the Country Liberal Party to reduce recidivism and expenditure on corrections facilities. The employment of prisoners is also promoted as ‘a significant benefit to a business’ bottom line’.19 In late 2014, the NT Department of Corrections won a contract, ahead of a Chinese construction company, to supply workers (prisoners) for the building of cattle yards at the Livingstone Abattoir near Darwin.20 Of the wage the prisoners earn, they must make various payments, including the payment of rent to the Department of Corrections.21 The Northern Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency has voiced concerns that new legislation around the program ‘gives too much power to the Department of Corrections’ and is counterproductive because it fails to address underlying causes of offending, therefore re-offending will be a likely result for prisoner-workers.22 Furthermore, the legislation may allow for prisoners to be paid less than award wages, which Labor Opposition Leader, Delia Lawrie, has referred to as ‘slave labour rates’.^23 Sisters Inside also recognises that the prison system has become a mechanism for the illegitimate exercise of power. They raise a challenge:
Forget reform. It is time to talk about abolishing prisons in society. So what’s the alternative? This puzzling question often interrupts further discussion of the prospects for abolition. Why is it so difficult to imagine alternatives to the current system of imprisonment? What about building the kind of society that doesn’t need prisons with the redistribution of power and income, and a decent sense of community that can support every member.24This kind of imagining and re-imagining of sites of power cannot, of course, be achieved in the legal or criminal justice spheres alone.
LawOn the shifting sands of the law, a creature of evolution and reform, ‘the search for certainty…requires that one side of a dichotomy be privileged while its other is denigrated. Privilege becomes defined in relation to its other.’25 Patricia Hill Collins wrote this in the context of black feminist thought on intersections of power and oppression. It rings true in the context of the law, where value and power are instilled in certain norms. The ‘reasonable person’ is a complex legal fiction constructed by law-makers who have historically been people like me, except they have been men.26 It is this norm to which the law refers and responds. One should be wary of the law as a force for change—change in the law does not normally occur until after public opinion has swung in favour of reform (and of course the law can be used for reform that harms the marginalised and disempowered).27 The law should be made an example of, as something fallible and flawed. I should make an example of myself, as complicit in these flaws.
ArtAt the conference was a fundraiser art auction organised by the Sisters Inside Young Indigenous Art Group, led by artist and Sisters Inside support worker Neta-Rie Mabo. We didn’t go because we didn’t think we liked the art. After the auction, and after the conference, we became deeply ashamed of this. We’d made our decision after a cursory glance at the works but informed by our understanding of what art is and what art should be. We were complicit in the exercise of exclusion. I have discussed this auction with a number of people who are similar to me, but are also formally trained artists, curators or art historians. They resist my blunt idea that the work of the auction artists is as valuable in the world as other work. They tell me ‘that isn’t what we’re doing here’ or ‘you’re too idealistic’. It’s hard to break beliefs, however critical, in the establishment. It’s hard to recognise complicity as power. But we’re not born clean. To work from where you are, you must first recognise what you start with. Art has the potential to challenge power. The critic should be aware when a challenge to their own power is necessary. When we didn’t go to the auction, we knew that ‘long-running programs around art…provided by Sisters Inside had kept troubled Aboriginal girls out of courts and detention centres’.28 What we didn’t understand was that the artists were working from where they are. They were taking action to disrupt and erode the prison industrial complex, and we were complicit in maintaining it.
Work from where you are29Debbie Kilroy is the CEO of Sisters Inside. She is a true firebrand: compelling, convincing and fierce. In 1989 she was locked up for six years on drug trafficking charges. In jail she was attacked and stabbed as she witnessed the murder of her best friend. Debbie says this was her turning point. She initially vowed to kill her best friend’s killer. Following the election of the first Labor government in Queensland in thirty-two years, a short-lived experiment that allowed community organisations to have greater involvement in running the prison and allowed prisoners greater freedoms, dissipated the tinderbox environment of the overcrowded and dilapidated prison. With this change, Debbie’s vivid dreams of letting her best friend’s killer’s ‘blood run freely’^30 subsided. Instead, Debbie started studying law in jail and, in 2007, became the first person convicted of serious criminal charges to be admitted by the Supreme Court of Queensland. Debbie has since been awarded the Order of Australia and an Australian Human Rights Award for her fearless and controversial advocacy through Sisters Inside. Debbie distinguishes Sisters Inside from many other ‘do-gooder’ community organisations:
[O]ne enduring philosophy: a ‘power with’, as opposed to a ‘power over’, approach to people.…[Sisters] quickly found that once you step outside the do-gooder’s vision for you, they ditch you. It is a relationship built on their power over you.…The power [of Sisters Inside] is in the hands of those inside.…We’re not here for the thank yous.^31I asked Debbie what it is like to represent women in court and try to keep them out of jail. To work every day in a system she doesn’t believe in. She said: know your enemy, remind them you know them, and talk about human rights in the Magistrates’ Court. Why were we there? Were we any different from the ‘do-gooders’? Or were we even worse because our lives are wholly disconnected from creating change for these women? We can only work from where we are.
Alternatives? Justice reinvestmentThe focus now must be outside the law and the criminal justice system, to displace current sites of power. These are not radical ideas.32 ‘Justice reinvestment’ targets the underlying causes of crime by redirecting spending on the criminal justice system to strengthen communities.^33 This approach is based on evidence that a significant proportion of offenders come from, and return to, a small number of communities.^34 Practical steps include implementing fully-funded early intervention, diversion and rehabilitation services to properly address the economic, social and cultural needs of community members and their families.35 Now it is a matter of imagining that change will happen.
Eliza DyballI am a white twenty-eight-year old female artist, I have a tertiary education, I grew up in suburban Victoria, as a child I knew poverty and neglect, I know people that have spent time in prison, I have never been strip searched and I have never been arrested. It feels dangerous to write about my personal experience, although I do feel compelled to talk about it, in order to take a position; I have to take a position, but this has been one of the most difficult parts of writing this article. I feel vulnerable and continue to hide behind an articulation, a conceptualisation of this event and/or the subject. Writing about vulnerable people and vulnerability has very slowly revealed the complexities of approaching vulnerability with vulnerability in a critical discourse. I realise I am far from the realities of a vulnerable position yet I remain frustrated, paranoid and uncertain about where I can speak from and or what I can speak to. The main aim of the ‘Is Prison Obsolete?’ conference was to ‘initiate and support the development of innovative and creative responses to issues affecting women in prison throughout the world’. The three-day program was designed to interrogate ideas around prison and the ingrained position it occupies within contemporary society. ‘What is the alternative to prison? Why is it so difficult to imagine alternatives?’^36 What is the impact of the extension of the carceral arm on contemporary society and by default, the extension on other institutions, including art? Debbie Kilroy, CEO of Sisters Inside, along with other co-founders of SIS, experienced the good intentions of community and government organisations, although always limited by the hierarchical context of prisoner meets corrections. A context, that although developed with a view to rehabilitation, often results in the co dependency of both parties. Many of the women working with Sisters Inside have lived experience—a major contributor to their approach; this unique management structure ensures it is lead by women currently inside the prison system. Keynote speakers included Angela Davis, Professor Emerita in the History of Consciousness at UC, Santa Cruz; Gina Dent, Associate Professor of Women’s Studies at UC Santa Cruz; Deborah Coles, Co-Director of Inquest, UK; Erica R. Meiners, Professor of Gender & Women’s Studies and Education at North Eastern Illinois University; Dr. Sharon McIvor, Instructor, Indigenous Studies at Nicola Valley Institute of Technology, Merritt, British Columbia; Kim Pate, Executive Director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies (CAEFS); Cassandra Shaylor, Justice Now USA; Antoinette Braybrook, CEO Aboriginal Family Violence Prevention and Legal Service in Victoria; Priscilla Collins, CEO of the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency; Melissa Lucashenko Novelist & Founding Member of Sisters Inside; Dr Anne Summers AO, author and journalist . I have listed every woman who spoke in the hope that you will look up at least one. I remember sitting at the conference on the first day thinking ‘All of these incredible women together for three days to talk about the systemic failures of hetero patriarchal capitalism! Where the hell is everyone?’ On the first day, the participants expressed their shock at the effect and the enduring hold of the prison system. Debbie, clearly upset and frustrated, explained that [omitted text].37 These are the frustrations of a system that is dislocated from real life. omitted text attempt to redefine her position through a direct link to the community present at the conference was met with increased alienation and displacement by the limits of the rehabilitative structure. omitted text Women shared their own experiences; they spoke primarily of the emotional depravation within prison, the dislocation from family and friends and the need to harden or develop certain behaviours to survive within the militarised environment; when to wake, when to stand, when to eat, when to strip, when to shower, when to exercise, where to cry, where to feel, who to trust. I left the botanical gardens feeling a need to drop everything, start working in the community and generate change! My pursuits in art felt somehow frivolous in comparison to the experiences and challenges of the women who had spoken. I can’t recall who said it first, but the importance of working from where you are was reiterated across the following two days. I kept trying to locate myself within this discourse. Debbie pulled everyone back to reality by saying something along the lines of: ‘The most effective position to effect change is from within.’ I asked Gina Dent how she operated within the hetero patriarchy that exists within institutional structures; how do we as women accelerate change within a university for example, without becoming marginalised or complicit in the hegemonic structure? Gina’s response was sobering, she said simply ‘No one is born clean Eliza, the best thing you can do is stand in the centre and deal with it, work with what you’ve got and speak from there.’ So where is the centre and what have I got? Since October I’ve been talking about prison abolition, a far-reaching and complex subject of which I’ve only just began to scratch the surface. It was pointed out many times during the conference that the discourse around prison abolition is constantly interrupted because the movement ‘fails’ to provide a solution to the industrialised prison complex. Conversations after the conference with friends and colleagues often result in ‘but what will we do with all the psychopaths? or the people who are inherently evil?’ I don’t know what to do with all the ‘psychopaths’ or whether there is any value in the pathological use of such terminology, and I don’t necessarily believe anyone is inherently ‘evil’, and it should come as no surprise that I don’t have a solution to the industrialized prison complex. But this is not where our attention should lie—the dialogue needs to remain open. The need to neatly package solutions is symptomatic of neo-capitalist society and often stymies the radical conversation required to approach alternatives. Sophie, a law graduate, Emma, a social work graduate, and I, an artist, sat at the ‘surf club’, overlooking the fake beach on the Brisbane River. After back-to-back presentations on the extent of criminalisation of women around the world, my mind and heart were reeling. In each address we learnt of systemic failures of the prison system and the ways in which these failures often affected the lives of the people outside, who by association become entangled in the carceral system. It was devastating. That evening there was to be an auction of artworks made by the Sisters Inside Young indigenous art group. We had decided not to attend. I now admit that I didn’t go because I ‘didn’t like the art’. I have literally written pages of alternatives to this paragraph trying to find the ‘right’ way to say this—that I didn’t value their art. I opted out of going to the auction because I thought I had a pretty good idea of what art is and what kind of art I engage with. I later realised the inherently powerful position of ‘the kind of art I engage with’ was exclusionary and allowed me to maintain a privileged position of (dis)engagement. I rejected the potential of the artworks exhibited in the auction to redefine the distribution of power for marginalised and at-risk women. Whether or not I liked the art, I failed to comprehend art as a form with the capacity to make visible social structures at play. I had been complicit in upholding dominant frameworks that I had simultaneously passionately denounced. I had missed the point. ‘The most enabling resource that I can offer, as a critic or an intellectual professor, is the capacity to think critically about our lives’.40 I ‘didn’t like the art’—art that made public content we’d rather not see—because I was viewing it from a specific position; through the lens of the art institution. A position I am desperate to maintain. Because this is the position that separates me from my former self, it is the lens through which I view the world and therefore myself, I identify with and through it. I have developed an intellectual framework and dialogue through which to process the world and my own experience in it, but it was this same lens, this same position that has enabled me in so many ways, that blinded me to the Sisters Inside Young indigenous art group’s power and potential to disrupt and shift the social hierarchy. Art doesn’t restrict content; as artists we have license to explore and articulate the unspoken with, and through, materials. Art has many functions within society but should exist primarily as an open-ended space that everyone has the right to occupy. If art has the capacity to generate conversations often made impossible by social boundaries of class, gender, language, education and race, then it also exists as a potential site for dialogue around alternatives to the prison system.
Sophie Brown is a trainee lawyer at a private firm in Melbourne. Eliza Dyball is an artist currently based in Melbourne, Australia. The writers’ fees for these articles have been donated to the Sisters Inside Young Indigenous Art Group.
1. Sisters Inside, ‘Is Prison Obsolete?’ conference, Brisbane, 8–10 September 2014. For further information and program see www.sistersinside.com.au/conference2014.htm.
2. See ‘Programs’ page for counselling information and ‘Reports’ page for the report on strip searching at Sisters Inside, www.sistersinside.com.au, accessed 15 January 2015.
3. ‘Values and Visions’, Sisters Inside, www.sistersinside.com.au, accessed 15 January 2015.
4. Ibid, see ‘Values & Visions’ sections.
5. The common law position was outlined in Veen v The Queen (No 2) (1988) 164 CLR 465, 467. This is reflected in the Sentencing Act 1991 (Vic) s 5(1) and similar legislation in other States and Territories.
6. ‘Prisoners in Australia, 2014’ Australian Bureau of Statistics, www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected]/Lookup/by%20Subject/4517.0~2014~Main%20Features~Prisoner%20characteristics,%20Australia~4, accessed 14 January 2015.
7. Commonwealth Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs, Report into the Value of a Justice Reinvestment Approach to Criminal Justice in Australia (2013)
8. Police Administration Act (NT) ss 133AA-133AC; for detailed explanation see ‘Paperless Arrests’ NAAJA, www.naaja.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/NAAJA-CAALAS-concerns-on-paperless-arrests.pdf, accessed 15 January 2015.
9. ‘Paperless Arrests Remove Troublemakers’, media release from Adam Giles Chief Minister of the Northern Territory, chiefminister.nt.gov.au/news/paperless-arrests-remove-trouble-makers, accessed 15 January 2015.
10. Other examples include the abolition of suspended sentences in Victoria, which means that a judge must send a person to prison if they are found guilty of certain crimes, regardless of whether deprivation of liberty is necessary to achieve appropriate punishment. Mandatory sentencing, such as ‘one punch’ laws, also have this effect.
11. Sisters Inside, Submission to the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs: Inquiry into the Value of a Justice Reinvestment Approach to Criminal Justice in Australia* (2012), www.sistersinside.com.au/media/SIS%20Submission%20D2%20Justice%20Reinvest%20Mar13.pdf, accessed 12 January 2015.
13. ‘Prisoners in Australia, 2014’ Australian Bureau of Statistics, www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected]/Lookup/by%20Subject/4517.0~2014~Main%20Features~Prisoner%20characteristics,%20Australia~4, accessed 14 January 2015.
14. Elizabeth Grant and Sarah Paddick ‘Aboriginal Women in the Australian Prison System’, Right Now, rightnow.org.au/writing-cat/article/aboriginal-women-in-the-australian-prison-system, accessed 14 January 2015.
15. For example, in Victoria from July 2008 to June 2013, sentences for murder had a median length of nineteen years with eleven per cent of sentences being life sentences (total 132 sentences); rape had a median length of five years with no sentence above twelve years (total 464 sentences); and sexual penetration of own child had a median length of five years with no sentence over six years (total 12 sentences). These statistics were taken from the Sentencing Advisory Council SACStat tool, available at www.sentencingcouncil.vic.gov.au/sacstat/home.html.
16. Adrian Bayley is a high-profile example. He served a total of eleven years in prison and completed a sex offender rehabilitation program for the rape and attempted rape of eight women. It was not until he murdered Jill Meagher in 2012, and after significant media and community interest, that he received a life sentence.
17. Charandev Singh, ‘The History of Prison Reform in Victoria and Challenges for Human Rights Advocates’, paper presented at Justice Bites forum, Bendigo, 6 November 2014.
18. Angela Davis, ‘Masked Racism: Reflections on the Prison Industrial Complex’, ColorLines Magazine, Fall 1998.
19. ‘Sentenced to a Job’ brochure, Department of Correctional Services, Northern Territory Government, www.correctionalservices.nt.gov.au/AboutUs/BusinessWithUs/Documents/Sentenced_to_Job_brochure.pdf.pdf, accessed 15 January 2015.
20. Felicity James and Rick Hind ‘Prisoners Help Build New Top End Abattoir’, ABC News, www.abc.net.au/news/2014-08-27/prisoners-help-build-abattoir-near-darwin/5701770, accessed 10 November 2014.
21. James Oaten ‘Darwin Prisoner Escapes after Joining Northern Territory Job Scheme’, ABC News, www.abc.net.au/news/2015-02-07/darwin-prisoner-escapes-after-joining-job-scheme/6077728, accessed 5 February 2015.
22. Felicity James and Rick Hind ‘Prisoners Help Build New Top End Abattoir’, ABC News, www.abc.net.au/news/2014-08-27/prisoners-help-build-abattoir-near-darwin/5701770, accessed 10 November 2014.
24. ‘Conference 2014’, Sisters Inside, www.sistersinside.com.au/conference2014.htm, accessed 14 January 2015.
25. Patricia Hill Collins, ‘Black Feminist Thought in the Matrix of Domination’ in Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment, Unwin Hyman, Boston, 1990.
26. For instance, the Law Council of Australia published the National Attrition and Re-engagement Study (NARS) Report in 2014, which investigated why so many women leave the legal profession, in which the number of women in senior positions has remained relatively unchanged for twenty years but there have been equal or more women to men graduating for almost as many years. The report is accessible at www.lawcouncil.asn.au/lawcouncil/images/LCA-PDF/NARS%20Report_WEB.pdf.
27. Keynote address by Ron Merkel QC (former Federal Court Judge) presented at Progressive Law Network annual Conference, September 5, 2014.
28. Sisters Inside, www.sistersinside.com.au/media.htm, accessed January 2015.
29. Kristina Olsson, Kilroy Was Here, 2005; ‘Debbie Kilroy’, transcript of interview on ABC Law Report, www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/lawreport/debbie-kilroy/3281260#transcript; Debbie Kilroy, ‘Power with Sisters Inside’, Griffith Review Edition 3: Webs of Power, 2005, available at griffithreview.com/contributors/debbie-kilroy, accessed October 2014.
32. In 2012, influenced by outcomes in the US, the Commonwealth Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs was tasked with conducting the Inquiry into the Value of a Justice Reinvestment Approach to Criminal Justice in Australia. The terms of reference included addressing the growth of imprisonment rates and social and economic costs of imprisonment. In its 2013 final report, the Committee recommended, ‘that the Commonwealth commit to the establishment of a trial of justice reinvestment in Australia’. Not much has happened since then.
35. Ibid, Sisters Inside, Submission to the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs: Inquiry into the Value of a Justice Reinvestment Approach to Criminal Justice in Australia, 2012, www.sistersinside.com.au/media/SIS%20Submission%20D2%20Justice%20Reinvest%20Mar13.pdf, accessed January 2015. conference2014.htm.
37. Corrective Services Act 2006 s 132; previously Corrective Services Act 2000 (Qld) s 100. 132 Interviewing and photographing prisoner etc. (1) A person must not—(a) interview a prisoner, or obtain a written or recorded statement from a prisoner, whether the prisoner is inside or outside a corrective services facility; or Note—Prisoner, as defined in schedule 4, includes a prisoner released on parole.[^40]: bell hooks: Cultural criticism and transformation, www.youtube.com/watch?v=zQUuHFKP-9s