Criminalising women must be stopped: Debbie Kilroy

Crime doesn't fit punishment: Older women fading in prison

IN 1979, the hit Australian television drama 'Prisoner' opened with the slogan, "If you think prison is hell for a man, imagine what it's like for a woman". In 2018, the slogan may well be upgraded to; "imagine what it's like for older-aged woman".

The trend of older people incarcerated is evidenced by a 2015 report by the NSW Justice Department which noted a 140 per cent increase in those over 65 between 2010-2014. It said NSW reflected the national trend with men over 65 years increasing by approximately 225 per cent.

Additionally, last year's census recorded the highest-ever figures in Australian jails. The ABS data showed that in in the first quarter of 2017, there was an average of 40,577 people in prisons. This is up from 25,968 last decade. 

And within these categories is the older aged person. An older person is considered fifty years or higher (45 years for indigenous Australians). On the outside these ages hardly fit with the "50 is the new 40" attitude, but many prisoners suffer from alcohol/drug abuse, inadequate diet and medical treatment.

WATCH: Crime rates don't match imprisonment rates says Debbie Kilroy

The reasons for the increase in aged prisoners include the growing aged demographic, mandatory minimum sentences, longer sentences for serious crimes and the reluctance to release some offenders.

However, since many of the country's prisons were built before this shift in demographics, provision for the older person and age-related challenges, including higher chronic and complex health needs, mobility issues and a sense of helplessness and boredom, have not been made.

In 2007, Queenslander Debbie Kilroy became the first person in Australia with serious convictions to be admitted to the bar. Her first-hand experience of imprisonment included being sentenced to six-years imprisonment for drug trafficking in 1989. During this time, she was stabbed and witnessed the only murder inside an Australian women's prison. Following her release, she established Sisters Inside, which advocates for human rights for women in the criminal injustice system.

Kilroy doesn't believe in incarceration. Even though women's prisons in Queensland are currently at 300 per cent overcapacity, she opposes any new prison,

"Because in a decade they will 300 per cent over capacity again," she told Seniors News.

"The reality is that we as a community must stop criminalising and imprisoning women and girls, particularly aboriginal and Torre Strait Islanders."

She says prison is no place for women, particularly older women.

Kilroy said she was recently made aware of an older woman living with dementia under remand in prison.

"She didn't know where she was," she said.

Through Sisters Inside, Kilroy was able to expedite the prisoner's release back to her family.

WATCH: Older women's health deteriorates in prison

In 2015, Silverwater Women's Correctional Centre general manager Patrick Aboud echoed the situation of ageing inmates to a reporter from the Women's Weekly.

"Our prison population is becoming elderly," he said

"It's tough when they are older. You see age-related issues like dementia and mobility problems".

At Silverwater Women's Correctional Centre, mobility issues have been addressed with wider ramps and corridors for wheelchairs and walking frames. The Kevin Waller Unit at Long Bay is an integrated aged care unit. Internationally there are example of specialised units in the UK and in the US, while in Germany there are moves for 'Nursing Homes behind bars".

Debbie Kilroy will be among the range of speakers at the WOW (Women of the World Festival) at the Brisbane Powerhouse, April 6 -8. 

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