Monday, June 22, 2015

Death in custody at overcrowded Bandyup Women’s Prison

A 50-year-old woman died in custody at Bandyup Women’s Prison in Western Australia on June 15.

The death has been confirmed by the state coroner’s office, but details of the circumstances surrounding her death are yet to be released.

In a statement, Deaths in Custody Watch Committee (DICWC) said: “This is exactly what we have feared and the reason why DICWC established the Bandyup Action Group. One death in custody is one too many. The overcrowding at Bandyup has led to stressful and harmful conditions for the women imprisoned and for staff.

“In April we said: ‘We hope it will not take a death in Bandyup before the government acts on the numerous suggestions, reports and recommendations on women’s imprisonment in WA.’ We call on the government to act immediately to address the overcrowding.”

Last year the Inspector of Custodial Services released a report that described Bandyup as the “hardest and most neglected prison in the state”.

The prison was designed to hold 183. In December last year, there were 348 women at Bandyup. More than one-third of these women were on remand.

Since 2008, the number of women in WA’s prisons has grown by 79%. In 2013, one-third of women who entered prison did so solely for the purpose of clearing fines, that is, they were imprisoned for being poor.

Aboriginal women are severely over-represented in prison, accounting for about half of the female prison population. Women commit fewer and less serious offences than men, but they tend to receive harsher penalties than men. In WA, there are fewer options for women to serve community-based orders than there are for men, so they are more likely to end up in jail.

More than 90% of women in prison have experienced physical or sexual abuse and prisons are under-resourced to deal with such issues. This means women are left to suffer the effects of violence, which is then made worse by being in prison.

Life for the women in Bandyup prison is becoming increasingly tense. It is severely overcrowded, understaffed, under-resourced and the needs of the women inside are not being met.

DICWC’s statement said: “The time for change is now! We must stop regarding female prisoners as ‘prisoners who happen to be women’ and start acknowledging the unique needs and issues that women face.

“We call on the government to act immediately to address the overcrowding:
• release all women in prison for fine default and other minor offences
• accommodate bail for women on remand
• release minimum-security prisoners to home detention, or parole if necessary.

“This would immediately reduce the population of Bandyup to a manageable size. The prison has estimated that by the end of 2015 there will be 370 women in Bandyup and 450 by mid-2016. The government’s proposed ‘fix’ — converting part of Hakea men’s facility into a remand facility for women — will not be ready until the end of 2016 at the earliest. The women inside Bandyup cannot wait that long.”

[This article first appeared in Green Left Weekly #1057 based on a statement by DICWC. Photo from a March 7 speakout by the Bandyup Women's Action Group.]