In WA, unpaid fines are keeping Indigenous mothers in jail
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In WA, unpaid fines are keeping Indigenous mothers in jail

In Western Australia, a person who has not been sentenced to imprisonment can, instead, be imprisoned for failing to pay a court fine.

It doesn't take a genius to figure out who such policies – imprisonment for poverty – disproportionately target: single parents, the Indigenous, women.

Indigenous mothers are disproportionately affected by WA's imprisonment of people who are unable to pay fines.

Indigenous mothers are disproportionately affected by WA's imprisonment of people who are unable to pay fines.Credit:Greg Newington

Now, a fundraiser is seeking to address the atrocious incarceration of Aboriginal women in WA, a disproportionate number of whom have been imprisoned because of unpaid fines. #FreeThePeople is the work of Queensland organisation, Sisters Inside. The effort was launched by Sisters Inside's CEO, Deb Kilroy – a lawyer and survivor of the prison industrial complex – last week.

"They are living in absolute poverty and cannot afford food and shelter for their children let alone pay a fine," Kilroy writes on the fundraiser’s page. "They will never have the financial capacity to pay a fine."

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The project initially aimed to raise $100,000, enough to have at least 100 imprisoned women's fines paid and warrants vacated. However, after a week, close to $230,000 has been raised, prompting the organisers to instead aim for 10,000 donors.

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The campaign has also seen Kilroy sharing stories on her Twitter of the Aboriginal mothers who have been supported by Sisters Inside to remain with their children and families rather than entering (or staying in) an Australian prison system in which they face a hyper increased possibility of being subjected to physical harm and even death.

In 2014, a young Aboriginal woman named Ms Dhu with an outstanding warrant for unpaid fines was arrested and taken to Western Australia’s South Hedland police station. Over the course of the next 43 hours, she made repeated complaints to numerous police officers about the substantial pain and suffering she was experiencing as a result of previously sustained intimate partner violence.

Shortly after, Ms Dhu experienced a heart attack and died. A post-mortem revealed she had also suffered acute septicaemia and pneumonia, and a staph infection which was traced back to an abscess found in her broken ribs.

Ms Dhu is one of more than 400 Aboriginal people who have died in police custody since the royal commission on such deaths in 1991. Systemic racism and oppression is a key issue here, and its biggest and most vulnerable targets nationwide are women just like those Kilroy is seeking to extract from the prison system in Western Australia.

"We must stop using prison as the default response to poverty, homelessness, mental health and drug and alcohol addiction," she says.

Teela Reid, a Wiradjuri/Wailwan woman and lawyer, says there are some key facts settler Australians (like me) need to understand about this issue.

“Aboriginal women are disproportionately incarcerated at the highest rates in Australia," she says. "In NSW, the growth of Aboriginal women imprisoned increased by 74 per cent in comparison to a 40 per cent increase in non-Indigenous women between 2011 and 2017.

"This is not because Aboriginal women are more likely to commit crimes, but they are more likely to be bail refused or breached by police and appear before court or receive a custodial sentence for like offences. [And] Aboriginal women in custody are also likely to be victims of crimes.”

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Reid also pointed out the failings of the court process in its duty of care to Aboriginal women.

“First, it does not protect Aboriginal women from violence and, second, it perpetuates a cycle of trauma. This disrupts families, separates mothers from their children and exasperates issues like homelessness and poverty.”

These are precisely the kinds of things that are likely to lead to an inability for someone to pay civic-issued fines in the first place.

Of course, fundraisers like these are not a long term solution. On the GoFundMe page, Kilroy urges people to also contact Western Australia’s attorney-general, John Quigley, and call for the repeal of these draconian laws.

“We need to have the campaign booming so the pressure is put on the government to change the laws," Kilroy tells me in an email, noting Aboriginal people in WA have been fighting for these laws to be changed.

“Prisons need to be abolished and communities must be properly invested," Reid says. "The reality is that the colonisers’ concept of Australia began as a prison that continues to be used as a tool to systemically oppress Aboriginal people. It’s important to recognise that the criminal justice system is a reminder that colonisation is still happening.”

You can donate to #FreeThePeople here.

Clementine Ford is a best-selling author and feminist commentator. Her book, 'Boys Will Be Boys', is out now.

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