The social and cultural resilience and emotional well-being of Aboriginal mothers in WA prisons… and beyond

May 2017

Imprisonment rates in Australia have reached an all-time high (208 prisoners per 100,000 adult population) 1. While women make up only 8% of the overall prisoner population in Australia, an increase of 40% was observed in the 2006-2016 period (31% among males) 1, making women one of the fastest growing groups in the Australian prison system today. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are overrepresented within this group. Comprising only 2% of Australia’s adult female population, Aboriginal women make up 34% of the female prisoner population (compared to 26% for Aboriginal men) 1. In Western Australia, this figure sits at 47% 2.

Why did we undertake this research?

Despite an expanding female prisoner population, research and policy initiatives centred on the health and other needs of female prisoners have been slow to respond 3. The Social and Cultural Resilience and Emotional Wellbeing of Aboriginal Mothers in Prison (Aboriginal Mothers in Prison) [1] was a four year NHMRC-funded project which sought to better understand the health, treatment and other needs of incarcerated Aboriginal mothers in WA and NSW. The research was led by Professor Liz Sullivan from the University of Technology Sydney, with the WA arm comprised of researchers from Curtin University (Ms Jocelyn Jones and Dr Mandy Wilson), the University of New South Wales (Professor Tony Butler) and the University of Western Australia (Dr Marisa Gilles). The research emerged from a former study investigating the pregnancy and birth outcomes of women incarcerated in NSW (MAGIC). During this research an Aboriginal Advisory Group was formed, and concluded that the experiences of incarcerated Aboriginal women warranted separate consideration.

What did we do in Western Australia?

Aboriginal Mothers in Prison was a mixed methods study. The authors conducted in-depth semi-structured interviews with incarcerated Aboriginal women who identified as mothers. A broad description of ‘mother’ was employed for the research which recognised that many Aboriginal women assume mothering relationships which include the rearing of non-biological children, for example, taking responsibility for raising younger siblings, a sister’s or another relative’s child/ren or her own child’s children (grandmother).

Women were asked questions about their:

  • children;
  • experiences around mothering and the challenges of mothering from prison;
  • intimate relationships;
  • family history;
  • offending history and contact with the justice system;
  • substance use history;
  • experiences around violence and abuse;
  • current incarceration period, and access to services and programs; and,
  • hopes for the future.

A number of standardised tools were also completed which measured physical and psychological health status, resilience, experiences of discrimination and life stressors, level of perceived social support, positive wellbeing, and health service utilisation [2]. In 2013, 84 interviews were conducted over an eight month period, in two metropolitan prisons (Bandyup Women’s Prison and Boronia Pre-release Centre) and three regional prisons (Greenough Regional Prison, Eastern Goldfields Regional Prison and West Kimberley Regional Prison).

Who were the women?

Between them, the women had 285 children. Two-thirds had one or more children in their care at the time of their incarceration. Being a mother was a central aspect of women’s identities and separation from their children (six participants had children residing in prison with them) was both a cause of grief, and a motivation for avoiding reincarceration when returning to the community.

Table 1: Selected characteristics of participants



21-49 years

Number of incarcerations

56% imprisoned more than once (36% incarcerated 3+ times)


78% left school by year 10 (21% received education of ≤ year 8)

Formal removal from family by welfare

14% (majority had shifted between family members as children)

Family members part of Stolen Generations


Juvenile detention

47% (50% of whom had entered by 13 years of age)

Unwanted sex/touching as children


Unwanted sex/touching as adults


Formal mental health diagnosis



The majority of women reported experiencing multiple trauma throughout their lives including the premature death of family members, removal from family as children, and family and intimate partner violence. Many described shifting from place to place as children and some had assumed mothering responsibilities at a very early age, particularly for younger siblings, which disrupted the women’s schooling. 

I’ve got boys in their 30s that I’ve looked after, that I’ve brought up from babies. I was only in high school. I had to drop out of high school a lot of times (Bandyup, 47 years)

Intergenerational offending was pronounced: Fifty-seven percent reported their mother and/or father had spent time in prison; 82% had siblings who had been previously or were currently incarcerated; and, 39% reported that their children (≥ 10 years) had been in trouble with the police. A substantial proportion of women had substance use issues and often came from families where substance use was widespread. Of those who had consumed alcohol in the year prior to their imprisonment (80%), 73% reported alcohol to be a problem for them and 74% implicated alcohol in their current offending. A lesser number reported using illicit drugs in the year prior to imprisonment (55%), and of these women, 54 percent implicated illicit drug use in their offending behaviour. 

It was an alcohol related offence. It was an assault. I think a lot of my offences were alcohol-related (Boronia, 36 years) 

What does it mean?

Our findings reinforce that female prisoners are a vulnerable group with the majority coming from backgrounds of childhood neglect, family disruption, and sexual and physical abuse 4. As adults, many have experienced violent victimisation 4. Trauma has been associated with a heightened vulnerability towards experiencing mental health and substance use disorders, both of which are linked to female imprisonment and an increased risk of experiencing violent victimisation and offending 5,6. A pertinent finding from the WA-arm of the study was the extent of violence women experienced in their lives, including intimate partner, family and interpersonal violence. Eight-eight percent of women reported experiencing violence against them and 69% had used violence against another person. The consequences of violence for the women and their families were grave and included the loss child/ren to child protection services and high levels of injury and in some case death. Women’s own use of force, often but not exclusively in response to an intimate partner’s violence, also played a role in women’s pathways to prison and apparently contributed to them remaining in prison. Women reported being refused parole due to histories of violence and yet no program existed that addressed women’s violence in any intensive way 7.  

Where to next?

A number of the researchers involved in the Aboriginal Mothers in Prison project, in collaboration with a multidisciplinary national and international team, were successful in attracting NHMRC funding to trial a prison-based violence prevention program with incarcerated Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal women who have used violence in WA and NSW. The study, which commenced in January 2016, responds to the gap identified in the former research and the research literature, namely, that there are few programs targeting women’s violent offending as there are for men, and little evidence of effectiveness of such programs for this group 8. The study will trial and evaluate Beyond Violence, one of the few evidence-based violence prevention programs developed for criminally-involved women who have offended violently. Beyond Violence deals with the violence and trauma these women have experienced, as well as the violence they may have committed. The program is gender-specific and privileges women’s experiences of victimisation, their social roles as women in their communities, and substance use and/or mental health issues 9. The research has two key aims: Primary: Evaluate the effectiveness of a targeted substance, mental health and violence intervention (Beyond Violence) in reducing recidivism among Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal women with a current and/or historical convictions for a violent offence. Secondary: Examine the effectiveness of a targeted substance use, mental health and violence intervention (Beyond Violence) on 6, 12 and 24 month measures of (a) depression; (b) symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); (c) anger; and (d) substance use in Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal women with current and/or historic convictions for a violent offence.


Where are we at with the research?

The research has recently been approved by the Western Australia Department of Corrective Services with approval pending from Corrective Services New South Wales. Recruitment of controls in the WA prisons should commence within the next month.


[1] The project was known as SCREAM in NSW.

[2] Scales included: selected measures used in the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Survey (2012), the SF-12, the Kessler-5, the Brief Resilience Measure, Multidimensional Scale of Perceived Social Support and Positive Wellbeing.


  1. Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2016). Prisoners in Australia 2016 (ABS publication 4517.0). Available from
  2. Department of Corrective Services. (2016). Adult Prisoners in Custody Quarterly Statistics: December Quarter 2016. Available from
  3. World Health Organization. (2009). Women’s health in prison: Correcting gender inequity in prison health. Copenhagen: World Health Organization.
  4. Swan, S., Gambone, M., Caldwell, J., Sullivan, T., & Snow, D. (2008). A review of research on women’s use of violence with male intimate partners. Violence and Victims, 23, 301-314.
  5. Barrett, E. L., Teesson, M., & Mills, K. L. (2014). Associations between substance use, post-traumatic stress disorder and the perpetration of violence: A longitudinal investigation. Addictive Behaviors, 39, 1075-1080.
  6. Logan, C., & Blackburn, R. (2009). Mental disorder in violent women in secure settings: Potential relevance to risk for future violence. International Journal of Law Psychiatry, 32, 31-38.
  7. Wilson, M., Jones, J., Butler, T., Simpson, P., et al. (2017). Violence in the lives of incarcerated Aboriginal mothers in Western Australia. SAGE Open, 1-16.
  8. Kubiak, S., Kim, W., Fedock, G., & Bybee, D. (2014). Testing a violence-prevention intervention for incarcerated women using a randomized control trial. Res Social Work Prac, 24, 1-15.
  9. Covington, S. (2013). Beyond Violence: A Prevention Program for Criminal Justice-Involved Women. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.