Koori women have become the fastest growing segment of Victoria's prison population, a new report from the state's human rights commission has revealed.
Unfinished Business, to be launched on Monday, finds the number of Koori women in jail has doubled over the past five years.
The Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission report finds that one in 10 female prisoners in Victoria is Koori, and one in three is on remand. More than 80 per cent are mothers, with their children at risk of being put into care.
The report says that while action has been taken to help Koori men stay out of prison, there was a lack of prevention and diversion programs for Koori women. It calls for specific diversion and support programs to meet their needs.
The total number of Koori women in prison – 30 at the end of February this year – is low compared with other states, but the raw figure hides the extent of the problem, with 89 Koori women entering prison in 2012. "Once a Koori woman enters prison, she is likely to be imprisoned again," the report finds.
"Many women end up 'churning' through the system on multiple occasions, often for relatively short periods of time." The report says this has "severe consequences" for the women, separating them from families and culture, jeopardising housing and employment, and compounding experiences of trauma and marginalisation.
"Furthermore, given many Koori women play a crucial caregiver role, their imprisonment also has an enormous impact on their children, their families and communities."
Most of the women are young, and many have grown up with family violence, sexual abuse and inter-generational violence. A significant number were removed from their families as children, and mental illness and drug and alcohol dependence are widespread.
Most are imprisoned for robbery, burglary and assault, but failure to pay fines is another reason.
The report also points to discrimination being a factor. "Community members told us that the over-representation is a result of not just higher offending rates but also bias [unintentional or otherwise] in the way our justice system responds to Koori women," it says.
Vickie Roach, who has spent a total of five years in prison, said racism in the prisons system was both systemic and individual, with prison officers bringing their personal prejudices to their work.
Ms Roach, who was released in 2008, recalled an incident in a unit of 10 women, of which only three were indigenous. The Aboriginal wellbeing officer was told by the supervising officer: "You want to get your girls together and tell them to clean that unit up. It's a pigsty."
"It wasn't 'get the whole unit together and talk to everybody', just the Koori women," Ms Roach said. "Those kind of incidents happen on a daily basis."
Jill Gallagher, who heads the Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation, said building more prisons was not the answer. "We need to actually look at prevention. How do we keep these women out of prison?"
Acting human rights commissioner Chris Humphreys said one of the salient figures was the high percentage of mothers imprisoned. He said, action to address the problem was "not just for the women but it's also for their families and the next generation of Kooris".