Women of Minority in Prison

Women from non-english speaking Backgrounds in Prison

Imprisonment is an isolating, dislocating and frightening experience for any prisoner. For those from Non-English Speaking Backgrounds (NESB) these experiences can be intensified.

Many prisoners from Non-English Speaking Backgrounds have to contend with a racist culture both within and outside the prison, as well as the active discrimination from courts, police and correctional institutions. Despite the prohibition of discrimination on the grounds of 'race, colour, gender, marital status, physical disability, religion, political affiliation or national origin' in Office of Corrections operational principles, NESB prisoners frequently experience discrimination whilst in prison.

This discrimination takes the form of a lack of specific services for NESB prisoners, the inability of NESB prisoners to access the services available to other prisoners, and the often racist and ignorant attitudes that inform both Office of Correction policy and the practices of many prison staff. As a result, NESB prisoners can serve lonelier and more difficult sentences than Anglo prisoners.

This article will only bring up some very general issues regarding NESB prisoners and will focus specifically on NESB women prisoners. The term NESB covers an extremely diverse group of people. Within the context of the prison, NESB people often share many experiences of discrimination and isolation. However cultural background, gender, sexuality, and proficiency in English, education, class and age divide the people.
Women Prisoners from Non-English Speaking Backgrounds
In Victoria NESB women prisoners make up approximately 17% of the female prison population. This 17% includes both Australian residents and those who are to be deported at the end of their sentences. NESB women are generally over-represented amongst those prisoners who are on remand and underrepresented amongst those serving sentences. This over-representation of NESB women on remand is often caused by discrimination from police and the courts as well as NESB women's lack of familiarity with the legal process and their rights.

Some women have served up to eighteen months on remand and have then been found innocent. There have been several cases where women who are not Australian residents have stayed in prison for long periods of time on remand, been found innocent and then deported without compensation.

Life Inside for NESB Women
NESB women's experiences of prison are often of extreme isolation and deprivation. Many NESB women have complained of racist harassment from both staff and prisoners. This racism takes many forms form verbal harassment and ostracism to threatened and actual physical violence. Many NESB women's religious and cultural practices are ignored or sometimes even banned in prison. In a New South Wales prison Muslim women were banned from wearing the hijab (headscarf) as it was said to pose a 'security risk'. NESB women have faced extreme difficulties when attempting to observe fast days and prayer requirements. NESB women frequently complain of being unable to obtain food that they want to eat or require for their religious needs.

Many NESB women have trouble communicating in English and therefore experience isolation and frustration. Every woman who goes to prison must learn a whole new system of terms, rules and regulations. Obviously, for women who speak little or no English, learning this system can be extremely difficult if not impossible. Prison culture and language is based on Anglo Australian cultural norms and vernacular and thus makes little sense to those not familiar with this dominant culture. Traditionally correctional policy, or lack thereof, concerning the specific language needs of many NESB women prisoners has been based on racist assumptions and extreme ignorance. Until recently it was common for officers to be told that repeating themselves loudly and slowly was a solution to misunderstandings that commonly occurred when giving NESB women instructions.

Correctional institutions have made some provisions from non-English speakers in the past five years such as the use of the Telephone Interpreting Service, written translations of some prison procedures and regulations and training programs for officers. However these provisions have been tokenistic, poorly administered and rarely utilised.

Relatively new equipment for three way telephone conversations between interpreters, prisoners and staff in NSW prisons are rarely used. Similarly in Victoria the Telephone Interpreter Service is infrequently used by prison officers at Fairlea. This infrequent use of interpreter services is not due to a lack of need.

NESB women prisoners do not have the right to utilise an interpreter when hey feel they need one. It is up tot he individual prison officer to decide whether a woman needs an interpreter or not. In practice prison officers rarely decide to use an interpreter. It is often assumed that women speak English well enough to hold a conversation they do not need an interpreter. This is often not the case. When some NESB women experience conflict, pressure and anxiety their English skills can deteriorate. Thus NESB women are often at an extreme disadvantage especially in situations, such as parole hearings, where it is necessary for women to argue their case. Until NESB women have the right to demand an interpreter when they think it is necessary this situation is unlikely to improve.

Prison staff often rely on English speaking inmates to interpret for NESB women or to inform NESB women of frequent rule changes and general instructions. This leads to frequent and often dangerous misunderstandings. Misunderstandings can be very serious in situations where work safety requirements need to be understood or when a non-English speaking woman needs to communicate with a doctor or psychologist. While English Speaking and Anglo prisoners do take care of some NESB women, other NESB women are left out. If a woman is not catered for in this informal and lackadaisical system, prison staff often blame the individual woman for being 'anti-social'. When NESB women are ostracised and disliked by English speaking prisoners it is often due to racism on the part of other prisoners rather than a fault of the individual woman. Whatever the reason it should be the responsibility of correctional institutions to provide effective services which enable NESB women to communicate.

Many Non English speaking women rarely have the opportunity to speak to anyone else. Everyday conversation with other inmates is difficult if not impossible. Non English speaking women who don't have visitors can go for months without speaking to anyone. This situation frequently occurs with deportees as their family and friends are overseas and phone calls are expensive and difficult to make.

Thus many Non English speaking women effectively serve their sentence in solitary confinement, this environment of deprivation, isolation and intense loneliness often contributes to serious mental health problems.

Possible Implications of Private Prisons The privatisation of prisons is likely to further disadvantage NESB women. Under the public prison system, service provision for NESB women has been frequently cut back in cost cutting exercises. Under a private prison system, where the profit imperative is paramount, minority services are likely to be further cut or completely abolished. The isolated site chosen for private prisons in Victoria will also disadvantage NESB women. In 1992 the NSW Prisons Task Force found that isolated prison locations provided a particular barrier to NESB people wanting to visit prisoners.


Taken from Peoples Justice Alliance Private Prisons Information Action Kit for Stop the Womens Jail Anti-Prisons Resource Kit Published June 2001 by Justice Action Ph: (02) 9660-9111


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