Melbourne, Australia – Vickie Roach was 12 the first time she was imprisoned.
Forty-eight years ago, in the early 1970s, she was arrested after running away from abusive foster homes and institutions.
“The morning after you arrive, you have to go see the doctor. They would examine you to see if you were pregnant or had STDs. And if you weren’t cooperative they would hold you down and do it,” said Roach, now 60.
For a young girl who had been sexually abused, this procedure was “traumatic”.
But her contact with the criminal justice system in Australia began even earlier – when she was two.
Then, she was removed from her mother as part of the Stolen Generations, an era when Aboriginal children were taken from their families in order to be raised by white people in foster homes and institutions.
We are all demeaned and belittled by the way we treat people in prison.
Vicki Roach, activist and former prisoner
Under the law at the time, any child removed from their family first had to be charged with an offence.
As such, many Aboriginal children like Roach had criminal records almost from birth.
“Any contact with the criminal justice system pretty much ensures continued contact with them,” she said.
She has survived heroin addiction, domestic violence, sexual abuse and repeated stints in jail.
Aboriginal women in Australia represent the largest cohort of prisoners in the country, comprising approximately 34 percent of the total number of female prisoners, despite making up only 2 percent of Australia’s total population.
They also represent the fastest-growing prison population.
Since a Royal Commission aiming to reduce the number of imprisoned Aboriginal people was conducted in 1991, the population of Aboriginal women in prison has risen by 148 percent.
About 80 percent of these women are mothers, most are on remand, and few have committed any serious crime.
Instead, as Roach explained, drug addiction, homelessness, domestic violence, child removal and abuse are often the untreated social conditions that lead to incarceration.
For many of these women, contact with the criminal justice system began at an early age, after being removed from their Aboriginal families and placed into the child welfare system.
“Being involved with the child welfare department, minor issues in a normal family would have been dealt with at home [by] mum and dad,” Roach said. “But I’d often be fed into the child welfare system – they’d be the ones to discipline me.”
This would result in further criminal charges and a stint in juvenile detention.
Yet the causes of her experience had begun the previous generation.
Roach’s mother had also been removed from her Aboriginal family and raised in an institution.
“Mum didn’t really know how to be a family because she had never been parented.”
After being taken from her mother, Roach would not see her again until she was 13, by which stage, “the connection was broken”.
At one point, Roach even lived in the same institution as her mother had the generation before.
“Mum came to visit me [once] and it was the home that she was in. And I didn’t know it was the home she was in. It was pretty shocking for her.”
As a young adult, Roach spiralled into heroin use and prostitution and would become a victim of domestic violence.
In prison, her problems grew.
Aboriginal women are the main carers of the children – if we can’t get jobs how are we supposed to feed the kids?
Naomi Murphy, activist and former prisoner
Naomi Murphy has also experienced the negative cycle of the criminal justice system.
She accrued a minor criminal record as a young woman, including the charge of theft of a motor vehicle which she says was stolen by her then-boyfriend; Naomi simply happened to be riding in it.
Yet despite getting herself on the right side of the law later in life, her criminal record would come back to haunt her, impacting her ability to get a job.
“There’s still things that sit on my record from 1992 – theft of a motor car and evading a train ticket,” she told Al Jazeera.
She now works for a community legal project called Woor-Dungin, which advocates to have criminal records of 10 years or more expunged so that Aboriginal people can move on with their lives.
The project addresses one of the biggest barriers – employment.
“Aboriginal women are the main carers of the children – if we can’t get jobs how are we supposed to feed the kids?”
Antoinette Braybrook, head of Djirra, a Melbourne-based organisation that works with Aboriginal women who have experienced family violence, said: “Most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women inside are in for non-violent offences related to homelessness and poverty.
“Laws around unpaid fines, public drunkenness, or unfair bail laws in Victoria, are known to disproportionately impact Aboriginal women. We advocate for the immediate abolition of those unfair laws.”
She said prisons are not safe spaces for Aboriginal women.
Ironically, however, a new wing recently built in Melbourne’s maximum-security women’s prison, has been named Winja Gunya, an indigenous phrase for “safe camp for women”.
Antoinette said: “The only safe space for our women is to be in their home, with their family and in their community, free from violence. It’s by addressing underlying issues like family violence, poverty and homelessness that we are going to keep our women safe. Governments need to invest in specialist culturally safe services like Djirra, not expand prisons.”
‘Custody is one of the least safe places we can be’
Aboriginal women are already severely disadvantaged in society. They are 32 times more likely than non-indigenous women to be hospitalised due to domestic violence, and one in four women seeking help for homelessness are Aboriginal.
Even today, Aboriginal children are 10 times more likely than non-Aboriginal children to be removed from their families and placed into child welfare, often due to mothers being in prison.
“They [government decision-makers] think the health care’s good. They think the food is good. They think we are going to have a bed. That these things get us away from an abusive partner, and get us away from drugs. If we’re homeless, that when we get arrested we are going to have a bed for the night,” said Roach.
“For Aboriginal women, being in custody is one of the least safe places we can be.”
Since her last stint in prison, which ended in 2008, Roach has gained a master’s degree and is now an advocate for Aboriginal women.
Women, she said, should be supported instead of being thrown in jail.
Yet, despite the recent custodial deaths of two Aboriginal women – Ms Dhu, who was imprisoned for unpaid fines, and Tanya Day, arrested while drunk on a train – activists do not expect the system to change.
Governments across the country heavily investing in the prison system.
A recent report demonstrated that the cost of imprisoning Indigenous people in Australia was eight billion Australian dollars ($5.5bn) a year, with this cost set to hit 20 billion Australian dollars ($13.8bn) a year by 2040, should the current rates of incarceration continue to increase.
“We need to stop criminalising people and locking them up in places that dehumanises them,” said Roach. “We are all demeaned and belittled by the way we treat people in prison.”