After more than three years out of their purpose-built accommodation, female detainees at Canberra's prison will finally move back into the cottages designed for them.
The move will coincide with the release of a new gender-specific model of care called the Women Offenders Framework, aimed at instilling best practice principles at the jail and addressing a number of issues raised in a succession of reviews.
The plight of female inmates at the Alexander Maconochie Centre was highlighted most recently in March when the independent Inspector of Correctional Services, Neil McAllister, fronted the ACT Assembly's standing committee on justice and community safety, warning the issue should be dealt with "sooner rather than later".
Mr McAllister told the inquiry female prisoners at the jail were still being housed in a wing designed for high-security male prisoners. He said the wing had "really no green space around it at all" and was "not particularly female friendly".
Compounding the issue was that when the women were leaving their wing to attend appointments, they had to walk directly past the men's security units where they were subjected to catcalls "and worse", Mr McAllister said.
Corrections Minister Mick Gentleman responded by saying he was aware of the women's issues, and fixing them was a "work in progress".
Back in 2017, with a disproportionate number of detainee prisoners to manage and a surge in female numbers, the women were shuffled into the larger 57-bed special care facility.
This facility was originally designed as a so-called "disciplinary tool" but hasn't been able to be used for that purpose since that time, which has had knock-on issues for managing the larger population.
At the time of the move the ACT government said the women "will have better access to health programs, education, employment and recreation". But as subsequent independent reports and inquiries have revealed, that didn't happen.
Left unaddressed by the new program is female access to the prison's transitional release program, an issue also highlighted in the 2019 Healthy Prisons Review.
More than a third of ACT female prisoners identify as from an First Nations background and Julie Tongs, the head of the Winnunga Nimmityjah Aboriginal Health and Community Service, has been constantly warning of the risks that the alternative, unsuitable accommodation posed to female prisoners' mental health and general wellbeing.
A snapshot of the female prison population in 2019 revealed that more than half were aged between 26-39 years old, 21 per cent were aged between 18 and 25, and mature women over 40 made up 16 per cent.
Over a quarter of the women were incarcerated for fraud and theft, and 10 per cent for traffic offences.
Women detainees, both sentenced and on remand, generally serve much shorter periods in prison but are often caught in the "revolving door" of recidivism as a result of issues the new framework identified, such as a lack of external support services when released.
The ACT Council of Social Service has welcomed the new framework and has urged "appropriate and adequately funded services for women to divert them from the justice system".
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