A Women in Prison Forum has heard how female inmates are being traumatised by having to walk past their perpetrators of family violence and sexual assaults in prison while being detained in the men’s high-security facility.
Women were also giving up on attending education and recreational programs because they had to walk past the men’s area, where young women, in particular, were subjected to sexually offensive comments.
The practice, which has been occurring over several years, prompted former ACT Chief Minister Jon Stanhope to chastise the prison’s management, saying that change would not be achieved under the current culture.
“When I set about to build a prison that would be human rights compliant, I was serious and genuine about it,” he said.
“As they say in the classics, I had a dream about what was possible and what was achievable, and I still believe it is.
“But my concern is that under current management arrangements, current philosophies, current structures, current training and current culture, it will never be achieved.”
ACT Human Rights Commissioner Dr Helen Watchirs outlined the conditions women in the prison are forced to endure.
She said the treatment of the female inmates was the worst she had seen since the prison opened 11 years ago.
“The women I spoke to were in deep despair,” Dr Watchirs said.
“[Their condition] was much, much worse than when we did the audit back in 2014.”
The women at AMC were moved from the purpose-built women’s cottages to the men’s maximum-security area three-and-a-half years ago when the number of female inmates more than doubled to just under 50.
The women were housed in the 57-bed men’s area while men were moved into the women’s cottages. These arrangements were meant to be for two years. It also meant women could not earn minimum security accommodation in the cottages as the men could.
There are now 18 women in the 57-bed male facility and 38 men in an area built for 25 women.
Dr Watchirs said it was now feasible to switch the inmates’ cells so the women were no longer subject to sordid conditions in the maximum-security area.
CEO of Winnunga Nimmityjah Aboriginal Health and Community Services Julie Tongs said it was time for a royal commission into the prison and the ACT justice system.
Ms Tongs read an emotional letter from an Indigenous detainee who said she was forcibly strip-searched in front of men at the prison while menstruating. The incident left her traumatised and filled with shame.
“A total of four female officers, two male officers, two male nurses and five male detainees [had] full view,” she wrote in the letter.
“All officers and nurses entered my cell to strip me naked to make sure I had nothing on me for my safety, I am told.
“Their intention was to forcibly remove all of my clothes by cutting them clean off. Here I ask you to remember I am a rape victim, so you can only imagine the horror, the screams, the degrading feeling and the shame I was experiencing.”
The woman also reported she was not allowed to attend her grandmother’s funeral in January this year despite only being on remand and filling in the correct paperwork ahead of time because of logistics.
The woman was moved to the crisis support unit after becoming distressed when she was told the news.
A Justice and Community Safety spokesperson said the ACT Government is “making major progress with improving accommodation arrangements for female detainees”.
The spokesperson said the safety and security of all detainees is a priority and that the government is committed to providing “appropriate supports to female detainees while in custody”.
“We recognise that women offenders often have higher levels of complex trauma, family and sexual violence and disadvantaged backgrounds,” the spokesperson said.
“The ACT Government is developing a package of initiatives to better support women detainees, which is well progressed.
“This includes a women offender’s framework that has been developed in partnership with the community to recognise the specific needs of female detainees.”
If this story has raised any issues for you, you can call Lifeline’s 24-hour crisis support line on 13 11 14.