By Dr Rachel Hale
Gender inequality and structural disadvantage are at the heart of the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on women.
Women are particularly disadvantaged by the global pandemic as a result of their increased caring responsibilities and intensified financial instability due to unemployment, while many are also at heightened risk of domestic and intimate partner violence due to home isolation.
Criminalised women – those who are punished by law for offences they committed in the context of social and economic disadvantage and complex trauma – have been especially hard hit. Irrespective of the pandemic, these women are among the most disadvantaged and relatively vulnerable groups within our community.
The COVID-19 pandemic has amplified the disadvantage of criminalised women, both in prison and the community, in a number of significant ways.
Imprisoned women are at increased risk of contracting COVID-19. Within the confines of the densely populated prison system, communicable diseases like COVID-19 have the potential to spread rapidly, and the prevalence of pre-existing chronic illnesses among incarcerated women means they are at heightened risk of death should the virus spread. Poor health outcomes, including death, are amplified for Indigenous women.
In response to this risk, advocates across the academic, health, and legal sectors in Australia have called for the early release from prison of those who are at most risk of contracting COVID-19 and of least risk to community safety. This includes criminalised women, who are often incarcerated on short sentences for relatively minor offences, posing little to no threat to public safety should they be released. Many women in prison are on remand, unsentenced, awaiting trial. Prison is no place for the majority of these women to begin with, let alone during a pandemic.
Within the community, criminalised women are encountering adversity beyond what they typically face.
Lisa Abbott, Project Co-ordinator of the Living Free Project, said the pandemic had led to unprecedented challenges, including the “cessation of access visits for mothers with children in out of home care, court closures resulting in lengthy periods under strict bail conditions, and the stress of managing isolation without support of pro-social peers”.
Reduced capacity for face-to-face support has limited the ability of support workers to “work through tangible solutions and regulate emotional responses” with their clients, Ms Abbott said, although technology and social media had led to some positive connections.
“For those most vulnerable and disconnected, COVID restrictions have had a significant impact on our ability to provide meaningful and authentic connection … the most important element in the therapeutic relationship.”
This was leading to “further isolation and vicious cycles of poor mental health and harmful coping strategies,” Ms Abbott said.
Tricia Ciampa, Executive Officer of Women and Mentoring, an early intervention mentoring program, said the impact of the health pandemic and physical distancing restrictions had resulted in an increase in loneliness, anxiety, mental health concerns and subsequent substance use.
She said women had reported difficulty in accessing services, including community centres and charity shops for emergency relief, food and clothing, as many of these were closed.
“Doctors’ appointments moving to telehealth has also been problematic as women have found it even more challenging to communicate their needs and to feel understood in these appointments. This includes women having drug counselling over the phone – some have never met the worker on the other end of the phone and find it difficult to be open and to trust that person,” Ms Ciampa said.
“We all know that housing services are at capacity. There is little or no movement in housing projects, making it difficult to refer and secure housing for women. Private rental is increasingly difficult to secure as it remains unaffordable for many women.”
Ms Ciampa said women had been unable to see children who were in kinship and foster placements and were limited to video conferencing tools for contact.
“This is very difficult and painful, inflicting further emotional trauma on women and children in these circumstances. There is also the assumption that everyone has access to the additional data, the digital literacy and the appropriate equipment to facilitate these meetings,” Ms Ciampa said.
“On the flip side, women are also speaking about not having to ‘jump through hoops’ at the moment to get essential resources such as Centrelink payments.”
Research shows that when criminalised women accumulate significant social and economic disadvantage and trauma their ability to access prosocial pathways and to (re)integrate into the mainstream community are limited, making re-offending highly likely.
Now, more than ever, the government must invest in community-based, preventive supports, focusing on decarceration and alternatives to imprisonment.
Researchers in Criminology and Criminal Justice at Federation University continue to focus on the experiences of criminalised women. Doctoral candidate, Jennifer Nicholls, is conducting a study of women’s experience of health care pre, during, and post-incarceration in Victoria, and Dr Rachel Hale continues to publish and present on women’s pathways to desistance from crime in an effort to raise awareness of the lived experiences of criminalised women and to advocate for meaningful change.
Dr Rachel Hale is a Lecturer in Criminology and Criminal Justice, School of Arts, at Federation University Australia.