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Beyond violence: breaking the cycle for women in prison

News story

The number of women serving prison sentences for violent offences is soaring nation-wide. But new research involving Curtin’s National Drug Research Institute (NDRI) aims to break the cycle of offence and keep families together.

Indigenous Australian mother with baby boy

Prisoner numbers nationally are at their highest point in a decade, and imprisonment rates have never been higher. While still outnumbered by their male counterparts, female prisoners are one of the fastest growing groups in Australian prisons, with a 56 per cent increase in the 10 years to 2018.

In 2018, 40 per cent of women in prison had been convicted of or were awaiting sentencing for a violent offence, with Aboriginal women over-represented in these statistics. Indeed, between 2006 and 2016, the number of women sentenced for a violent offence increased by more than 50 per cent.

Despite this, prevention or rehabilitation prison-based programs designed specifically for women and targeting their experiences around violence, have been lacking in Australia.

NDRI researchers are leading the Western Australian trial for the ‘Beyond Violence’ program, an international collaboration funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council. The research seeks to help Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal women incarcerated for violent offences to break the cycle of violence and repeat offending in WA and NSW.

Developed by renowned American psychologist Dr Stephanie Covington, the Beyond Violence program is specifically for women with histories of violence involved with the criminal justice system. A violence prevention program, it is trauma-informed and gender-specific and, as well as addressing the violence women experience and use, it targets substance use and mental health.

A version of the program, modified for Australians, is being trialled in Western Australian prisons until the end of 2020. An Aboriginal Women’s Working Group has ensured it is culturally safe for Aboriginal women.

More than 100 baseline interviews have already been completed, with women in the control group receiving ‘treatment as usual’ in three WA prisons. Women who meet the eligibility criteria for the study can now participate in 20 sessions of the program.

The research team will evaluate the effectiveness of Beyond Violence in reducing repeat offending, improving mental health symptoms such as anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, and reducing anger and substance use among the group. Women will be interviewed at baseline, and at three points after their release (three, nine and 15 months).

Evidence-based research

Beyond Violence is one of the first evidence-based programs specifically targeting women who are incarcerated for offences involving violence.

“The treatment and rehabilitative needs of incarcerated women have historically been sidelined to those of men,” says Curtin-based lead researcher Dr Mandy Wilson.

“During our previous research, women prisoners highlighted the need for such a program, indicating they would participate in an intervention that addressed their use of – and experiences around – violence, if it was available.

“Preventing the imprisonment of Aboriginal women, in particular, is vital as they are disproportionately overrepresented in our prisons and are often the main carers of their own children, and the children of immediate relatives and extended family network members.

“If Beyond Violence is effective, there will be substantial benefits for individuals, their families and the community, given it costs about $237 a day to keep an adult incarcerated.”

The Beyond Violence research is part of the Justice Health research program at NDRI, which has a strong focus on identifying the support needed to break the cycle of offending, particularly among young and adult Aboriginal women.

Importantly, much of the team’s research is community-led and initiated. An earlier project, ‘Drinking in the Suburbs’, arose from concerns within the Aboriginal community about young people drinking, fighting and getting in trouble with the law. When the results were shared with the community, particular concern was expressed about the findings relating to the female participants, many of whom were consuming alcohol at levels that placed them at a heightened risk of harm. The young women reported fighting that often led to significant injury to self and others and low-level contact with police. These findings were similar to the male participants, however the young women were found to be less likely to speak with others about these issues or to be linked into support services and health-promoting activities.

These findings led to the development of the YAWG Project, which aims to create a resource package informed and developed by young Aboriginal women, to demonstrate to service providers the daily challenges they face and the support they need to avoid violence and other adverse outcomes.

Two young Indigenous boys A further study focusing on the social and cultural resilience and emotional wellbeing of Aboriginal mothers in prison has also highlighted the extent of violence the women in the research experienced – 88 per cent had experienced violence and 69 per cent had used it in their relationships with others – as well as high levels of intergenerational offending.

“It was fascinating talking to the women in prison,” Wilson says.

“The big revelation was about the ubiquity of violence in their lives. We recognised these women in the young girls from the earlier project, which made us think about how important it is to intervene early.”

“The women were reflecting back on when they were young. For many, that’s when the fighting started and it was then being taken into adulthood and their adult relationships.”

Wilson says more than 90 per cent of the women in the Beyond Violence control group have experienced family and domestic violence.

“Many have told us that they eventually ‘snapped’ and used violence themselves in the context of violent intimate partner relationships, and for some, this directly contributed to their current imprisonment,” she explains.

“That shows that what’s missing in the community is support for women who find themselves in situations where they’re using violence because they believe there is no other recourse or that there is nothing available to help them.

“I’d like to see something based in the community, like a booster for women who do a program like Beyond Violence while in prison, as well as a modified version of the program run for women in the community who may use violence, but who are yet to become enmeshed in the criminal justice system.”

Wilson believes the programs could be a successful preventative measure.

“If we can give these women the skills and support in the community to keep them out of prison and with their families, especially mums, it’s going to have a positive flow on effect on the families and the rest of the community.”

Future of Health (Public Health)

This story is featured as part of our series on the Future of Health (Public Health).

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