How Sisters Inside Is Shaking Up The Prison System In Australia

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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are advised that this clip may contain images, names, and voices of people who have died.

Debbie Kilroy OAM is the founder and CEO Sisters Inside a grassroots community organisation aiming to end the incarceration of women with a focus on Indigenous women.

She had her first experience with the prison system at 13 years old from skipping school which began her stint of living in and out of the system.

“When I was last in prison back in late eighties/early nineties, my friend who was also called Debbie was murdered sitting beside me,” she said.

How Sisters Inside Started

The Women’s Correctional Centre at Boggo Road Gaol in Meanjin where Debbie was serving time in the early 90s,was notorious for its poor and overcrowded conditions.

The murder of Debbie’s friend triggered the first sort of proactive measures by prison authorities for the women’s prison. It just so happened to coincide with a change in Government, the first Labor state government in Queensland for 32 years and the premier at the time led reforms into the state’s crumbling institutions after an inquiry into police corruption.

Debbie told Junkee that prison committees were set up which allowed prisoners to have a say around things like food, medical access and visits.

“There was a long-termers committee that I was part of and eventually when I was released on parole. I said I would come back so that we could keep the momentum of the committees going,” Debbie said.

“I was outside in the free world and we had some other women join us and that’s how Sisters Inside basically started.”

Sisters Insides And The Abolition Movement

Sisters Inside is very much grassroots Debbie explained. It was by the prisoners, for the prisoners and still is.

“It had to be for all of us inside” she said.

Debbie went on to become the only convicted drug trafficker to be admitted as a lawyer in Australia. And under her lead Sisters Inside has become a national prison abolition organisation working towards decarceration and an end to the prison industrial system in Australia.

At ground-level Sisters Inside provides everyday support to women prisoners, particularly First Nations women who are incarcerated at higher rates than non-Indigenous women. They provide women with proper identification, bring their children to prison for visits, attend court for the women and seek employment rights for them once they’re out of prison.

TheSisters Inside #FreeHer campaign actually brought forward legislation to stop Aboriginal women being imprisoned for not paying fines which was historically passed in WA in 2020.

Despite Reform The Rate Of Women And Girls In Prison Hasn’t Changed

Despite this incredible work the rate of women prisoners has been increasing over the last ten years and at a faster rate than the number of men in prison.

While Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women only make up 34% of the female prison population in 2016 their rate of imprisonment was not only higher than that of non-Indigenous women but was also higher than the rate of imprisonment of non-Indigenous men.

“I’m not worried about the overrepresentation of Aboriginal people because there shouldn’t be any representation of Aboriginal people in any system at all. Right?” Debbie pointed out.

Until Australia can start “dismantling racial capitalism and build other modes of security and safety,” Debbie explained that we will “just get the same results.”

“We need to knock down the cages and the walls, build some bridges and keep people in the community women and girls in the first instance should not be criminalised. And that’s where the national issues come in right,” she said.

Prisons have become the default position for social services, you know, mental health. So many women in prison with mental health issues because they can’t get support out here,” she said.

Debbie argued that if someone has a drug addiction, been violated, live with a mental illness prisons only make those traumas worse. She believes that the state needs to take responsibility for that.

In 2020 the National Agreement on Closing the Gap set targets to reduce the overrepresentation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults in the criminal system, one being to reduce the rate of incarceration by at least 15 per cent by 2031.

But as Debbie pointed out there’s advocacy that needs to be done at a federal level. The only problem is that prisons are state and territory responsibilities which is where a lot of work needs to be done within those jurisdictions, she argued.

“It would be something I suppose the national network [needs] to look at. Whether this new Labor government would be interested in supporting a national network of criminalised and imprisoned women and girls in relation to those national issues as a peak body because there’s no peak body,” Debbie said.

“We’re sick and tired of people talking about us. We’re actually more than capable to advocate and do what we need to do for ourselves.”