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Berrimah Prison. Image: Still from trailer for ‘Prison Songs,’ © SBS 2015 (via YouTube, digitally altered)

In a lecture hall at the University of Queensland, a woman in acid-wash jeans and cowboy boots sits with her legs apart addressing a rapt audience. She speaks in gritty tones that tell of a working-class childhood and a late education. Debbie Kilroy is the founder of Sisters Inside, an advocacy group for incarcerated women. She pulls no punches. Prison is big business. We must shut down the prison industrial complex. She talks about ‘her mate Angela (Davis)’ and how they recently got together and laughed over an episode of Orange is the New Black. While she is speaking, two small children drift out of the audience and onto the stage, as if drawn by the strength of her charisma. She lifts one up and continues speaking her truth to the packed auditorium with the kid on her lap. 

I first learned of Sisters Inside when I was studying law. I had picked up a brochure about the latest ‘Is Prison Obsolete?’ conference, which was to be held in Melbourne. I showed it to my mother. ‘Women who’ve been in prison can attend for free.’ She registered immediately. 

It had been several years since she had been released after her final stint. She was living in Brunswick, studying a PhD in Literature and nagging me to start dressing properly. We spent a memorable three days listening to prison abolitionists from around the world talking about injustices inflicted on women in custody. At twenty-two, I was dimly aware that the issues being discussed both did and did not align with what she had represented to me as a child. Throughout the decade my mother had spent in and out of custody for a suite of dishonesty offences, she had maintained her innocence. It was a cliché to which I was oblivious. Even once I entered law school, I had still to be disabused of my belief in her. As Red tells Andy in The Shawshank Redemption, ‘Everyone in here’s innocent.’ 

Throughout the decade my mother had spent in and out of custody for a suite of dishonesty offences, she had maintained her innocence. It was a cliché to which I was oblivious.

It was in 2009 that I first visited a prison as a lawyer. I was twenty-six and a junior solicitor at the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA), the Aboriginal legal service in the Northern Territory. The visit centre at Berrimah was outdoors, covered by a tin roof, with open sides through which you could see the prison wall. Two white officers supervised the mostly black inmates seated at the wooden tables with their families or their lawyers. 

When I pushed open the heavy metal gate, I was flooded with memories of a long-ago prison visit, the first time my mother was held on remand. I had cried myself to sleep on a mattress on my cousin’s floor. My aunt drove me to the prison on Saturday and we stood beside the menacing prison wall until someone answered our buzz at the intercom. I saw my mother through the fence before they hauled the door open for me to run through and hug her. Her prison tracksuit felt strange against my face. I fought these memories off while I talked to my client at Berrimah. When it started to rain, the noise was so loud on the tin roof that we had to stop and wait it out. Over the months that followed, my prison visits became routine and I groped my way towards an appropriate level of detachment. 

As a young solicitor, I saw Aboriginal people going through a revolving door. Some were unable to recall what offences they had been jailed for on the last occasion. There was a mass opting out of the white legal system, with defendants failing to turn up to answer their bail or flagrantly breaching court orders. ‘Balanda [white man] law doesn’t exist,’ one man memorably told police, when asked his reason for breaching an order. When I saw the many ways in which the whitefella legal system was failing people, I couldn’t blame them. 


Fairlea Women’s Prison closed down in 1996 as sections of the prison system were privatised. Unbeknownst to my nine-year-old self, standing in the lee of its wall on that Saturday morning in 1991, Australia was poised to embark on a project of relentless penal expansionism. The ethical problems with private prisons are obvious. Companies profiting from mass punishment; their continuing growth and profit potential becoming important to the economy. They also give rise to an apparent conflict of interest. The goal of prison, in theory, is to rehabilitate. When a company’s continued operation demands a robust prison population, there is no incentive to foster conditions that promote staying out of jail post-release. 

The ethical problems with private prisons are obvious. Companies profiting from mass punishment; their continuing growth and profit potential becoming important to the economy.

What’s more, with private prisons comes reduced accountability in a sector where accountability has been sorely lacking. It is very difficult to obtain records from a private prison through Freedom of Information, meaning that deaths in custody cannot be fully investigated for possible breaches of duty of care. For this reason, when Ngaanyatjarra Elder Mr Ward died in the back of a prison transport vehicle going through the West Australian desert in 2008, records relating to what contractor Global Solutions Ltd knew about the faulty air conditioning in the vehicle could not be accessed. 


The Northern Territory has the highest incarceration rate in the developed world. Over 80 per cent of the prison population is Indigenous. Notoriously, there is no facility for the criminally insane and those found unfit to plead are nonetheless housed in prison. It was in Berrimah that Lindy Chamberlain served three years before being exonerated of the murder of her infant daughter Azaria. Even three decades later, the case was never far from the lips of the Northern Territory’s criminal lawyers. Berrimah Prison closed in 2014 and a bigger prison was opened on Howard Springs Road, 33 kilometres from the Darwin CBD and surrounded by bushland. Despite promises of a bus service for those wanting to visit family members, no such service existed until community pressure led the Salvation Army to offer a minibus three times a week. It has been described as the most isolated prison in the Western world. 


When I was very young, I accompanied my mother to court in Melbourne. She sat primly beside me, neatly dressed, legs crossed. I squeezed her hand and tried to put my arm around her shoulders, but she shrugged me off. The wait was interminable and each minute brought a new layer of dread. She had been to jail before; she might be going again. She was an innocent woman, so I thought, being persecuted by the system. Her solicitor sat at the front of the court, laughing and talking with the other young lawyers. I couldn’t hold my mother’s hand tightly enough. ‘Why isn’t she sitting with you?’ I asked, indicating the solicitor, whose insouciance I found offensive. ‘How can they be laughing like that?’ 

Though I had a lot of the details wrong, my sense of injustice at the casual way people were deprived of their liberty has been vindicated. More than two decades later, we have become a country defined by our love of locking people up. It’s no coincidence that during the same years the penal system has massively expanded in Australia, immigration detention has also become a booming industry. We view the most vulnerable as a threat, whether their desperation manifests in ways that society has criminalised, or by trying to reach our shores to seek asylum. Either way, companies like Serco and G4S stand to gain. 

Though I had a lot of the details wrong, my sense of injustice at the casual way people were deprived of their liberty has been vindicated.

Criminal law posits imprisonment in the interests of general deterrence, specific deterrence and rehabilitation. At criminal law conferences, many judges and magistrates openly acknowledge that general deterrence is a fiction and that prison doesn’t rehabilitate. There is talk of justice reinvestment, the practice of redirecting funds that would be used to incarcerate people back into the communities they come from to create infrastructure, jobs and support programs, addressing the factors that led them to offend. In some communities, like Bourke in New South Wales, justice reinvestment programs are being trialled, but public pressure remains for governments to be ‘tough on crime’.


From the modest stage in the lecture theatre at UQ, Debbie Kilroy matter-of-factly describes the strip searches female prisoners must go through before they receive visitors. Before and after the visit they must undress, lift their breasts, part their cheeks and, if they are menstruating, take their tampon out. There is obvious discomfort among the audience at these words. The majority of women in prison have been the victims of sexual abuse. Many women opt to forego seeing their family, or choose to speak to them in a room divided by a glass partition, rather than go through the searches. 

As I listen I recall train trips out to Laverton and the shuttle bus to the Dame Phyllis Frost Centre to see my mother as a teenager. The strip searches didn’t particularly bother her, she used to say, but they were terrible for women who had been through trauma. I realise I’d never thought to ask if one weekend suited her better than another. Sometimes I turned up unexpected. ‘I wasn’t expecting to see you today,’ she always said. ‘What a nice surprise.’ She once told me how she and her drug smuggler mate had tried to calculate how much money was made from the criminal justice system. Big business, they had concluded.

I’m thirty-four now, and have only recently pieced together my childhood. It has taken years to fully understand that my mother’s claim of having been ‘set up’ by the police was what people in the Territory call ‘gammon’ – bullshit.  

When I first heard Kilroy speak at the conference in Melbourne, I still believed my mother innocent. At the end of the conference, Kilroy had invited all the women in the audience who had been ‘inside’ to rise to their feet. Women throughout the hall had stood stiffly and those remaining seated looked at them with something like admiration. My mother had left at lunchtime that day. If she had been there to rise to her feet, what would she have felt towards the daughter who had brought her along, her head still full of her mother’s lies? 

It has been some time since we have spoken. I just want you to admit what really happened, I had told her. 

This time, I’m here alone. 

To one side of me two heavily pierced women listen intently. In front of me sit several earnest-looking undergraduates. A few people stand up to leave. Kilroy picks up the microphone one last time. 

Does anyone have any questions?