The treatment of criminalised and imprisoned women and girls is deteriorating rapidly in Australia — and a recent case of an Aboriginal boy denied access to his mother’s breast milk shows the true human cost.

A Queensland baby boy was removed from his mother, who was in prison, just days after his birth and placed in care. His mother was returned to prison, and both were denied the right to spend these vital weeks in the purpose-built cells for mothers and babies.

Instead, the prison system and child safety facilitated the removal of this little boy, and he was placed in foster care. His mother was given a mattress on the floor of a cell, due to overcrowding.

I cannot imagine the trauma this young mother is experiencing, the grief and loss. However, I do understand the trauma of having my children taken from me when I was sentenced to a term of imprisonment 30 years ago, and that was unbearable.

This young mother is still producing breast milk, and she wants to continue to provide breast milk for her baby. Once again the prison system and child safety authorities passed the buck back and forth to each other, and no breast pump was supplied to the mother.

Prison advocacy group Sisters Inside acquired a breast pump and took it straight to the prison for the young mother. On arrival we were told the breast pump would not be accepted as the woman did not fill out a form — red tape and policies used again to block access to something as basic and vital as a breast pump.

When are the best interests of a newborn baby taken into account?

The prison system talks the talk, but side steps action when the reality arrives.

It took an email from Sisters Inside to the general manager of the prison asking that the decision be overturned before we could take the breast pump back for the mother. But we still don’t have confirmation that she has actually received the pump, and we won’t until we see the young mother again.

Our concern is that the prison system may not allow us access to her again because we have made this issue very public and exposed the abuse inflicted on mother and child.

The prison system’s response to date is that Sisters Inside does not have the whole story, and officials couldn’t discuss it further because of “privacy”. But the question isn’t about the whole story or privacy. The question is: why wasn’t a newborn baby and his mother given permission by the prison system to access the mothers and babies unit, considering she is due to be released in under month?

Why didn’t the prison system and/or child safety provide a breast pump for the young mother, given their policies state that such a decision is made in the best interests of the child?

Why are so many Aboriginal mothers and babies denied access to the mothers and baby units in women’s prisons? Why are the vast majority of mothers in prison with newborn babies not supplied with breast pumps, bottles and refrigeration for breast milk?

This is about the removal of another Aboriginal baby, the new stolen generation at the dirty hands of the state hiding behind unjust laws and policies.

The Productivity Commission’s recent report on indigenous disadvantage showed a huge jump in the number of indigenous people being imprisoned and in the numbers self-harming. It is an indictment on us all, but the information isn’t new.

The prison system hides behind thousands of pages of law and policies that suggest female prisoners are treated fairly and with dignity, and that they are in prison to protect the community.

This is what makes it difficult to expose the raw reality of women and girls being exposed to systematic breaches of human rights on a daily basis behind bars.

The prison system can cover up, sidestep the truth, create smoke and mirrors. The prison system feeds into the rhetoric that we as advocates are just misleading the community, hysterical and even liars.

To all those shocked by the Productivity Commission’s findings, I would say: this is where it starts. A baby removed from his mother, denied even her breast milk in a plastic bottle. Fast-forward to where this mother and this baby boy might be in 10 or 15 years. Go on, think about it.

I must put on the record now that when women and girls inform me of the trauma they experience behind bars, I believe them. I don’t believe the cover-up with which the prison system tries to downplay women’s and girls’ experiences of violence and abuse at the hands of the system.

I believe Aboriginal women and girls when they say they experience daily racism in prison. I believe women and girls when they say they experience sexism and misogynist treatment daily in prison.

Aboriginal women are the most over-represented group in the prison population of women, and the incarceration rate for Aboriginal women is growing with alarming speed.

In the last decade, Aboriginal women’s imprisonment rates have increased by 58.6% while the non-indigenous men’s prison population has increased by 3.6%.

The data clearly exposes the structural and systemic racism and sexism in laws and policies. Put this together with the fact that over 85% of women in prison are primary care givers of children, and the commission’s findings are no surprise at all.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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