International Women's Day

Sisters Inside: How Debbie Kilroy went from prisoner to protector of women’s rights

Sisters Inside: How Debbie Kilroy went from prisoner to protector of women’s rights

Debbie Kilroy of Sisters Inside. Image credit: Sisters Inside.

Sisters Inside is supporting women in and out of prison to re-establish their lives, empowering them to break free of the cycles of disadvantage.

When Debbie Kilroy, CEO of Sisters Inside, was first incarcerated, she had not been convicted of any crime and was told it was “for her own good”.

Australian female prisoners increased by 47 per cent between 2009 and 2019, and are often victims of crime themselves, including domestic violence and assault. These women are some of society’s most marginalised members, thanks to a failing prison system and public misconception of what drives female incarceration.

“The vast majority of women prisoners are imprisoned for minor, non-violent crimes,” said Kilroy.

“These are often poverty-related, with many women being homeless or having no income immediately prior to imprisonment. About 40 per cent of the women in prison in Queensland are on remand, meaning they haven’t even been tried for their alleged crime, usually due to homelessness or untreated health issues.”

Indigenous women and women with disability are overrepresented in Australian prisons, and many incarcerated women live with head injuries resulting from domestic violence.

The complexity and inaccessibility of the criminal justice system in Australia discriminates against people with a communication barrier such as a disability, or those without access to adequate social and legal support when navigating the legal system.

“Too often women are imprisoned on remand for failures of the state,” said Kilroy.

“Failure to provide adequate income support, to support women leaving violent homes, to provide essential housing and health services, and to address multigenerational harm arising from colonisation.”

Debbie Kilroy: From inmate to lawyer and advocate

Kilroy served her final sentence in Queensland during a rare period of prison reform that enabled her to complete her qualifications in social work while imprisoned. Kilroy later completed a law degree after realising her potential to use her skills and experience to help other imprisoned women and girls.

During this period of reform, Kilroy was also able to play a crucial role in a prison advisory group, empowering other women to have input into the support they wanted, both in prison and once released.

“Very few services were available and, particularly post-release, women didn’t want to be told what to do, so they generally avoided services which replicated the controlling attitudes of police and prisons,” said Kilroy.

“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women prisoners didn’t want their lives controlled by statutory systems. I vowed to set up an organisation to advocate for women prisoners’ rights and address their needs in a way that worked for them.”

Planning for the establishment of Sisters Inside began within the prison, with the support and insight of her fellow criminalised women, who continue to play a key role in all levels of the organisation today, reflecting the motto “nothing about us without us”.

Kilroy also credits the crucial support of the Murri community in Brisbane, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elders and organisations throughout Queensland in enabling Sisters Inside to successfully work with and support First Nations women.

Sisters Inside: How Debbie Kilroy went from prisoner to protector of women’s rights

Debbie Kilroy with Sisters Inside members. Image credit: Sisters Inside.

The prison system’s revolving door

One of Kilroy’s motivators for creating Sisters Inside was understanding that the current policing, legal and prison systems are fundamentally flawed when it comes to supporting women.

“Women come to prison who are homeless, poor, have mental health concerns and addictions,” said Kilroy.

“Prisons are violent places that impose another layer of trauma on women, most of whom have already been traumatised by lived experience of violence, racism, child removal etcetera.”

Poverty, a lack of support, and discrimination force already vulnerable women into a revolving door of incarceration, disadvantage, and trauma. Given the billions of dollars spent annually on Australia’s prison system, and its detrimental impact, Kilroy believes serious change is overdue.

“It costs $300 per day to keep a woman in prison,” she said.

“Imagine if that money was given directly to each woman; to pay for safe and affordable housing, to support their children, to pursue education or find stable employment.”

“Imagine if every Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander woman’s descendants were compensated for their stolen wages. Imagine if we provided the same quality of free dental and health care for all Australians, including women and children in prison. Imagine if we funded free, culturally driven trauma support for every First Nations person who wanted it. Imagine if First Nations languages and history were taught in our schools. Imagine if there was sufficient public housing so that no woman or child was homeless. Imagine if we no longer criminalised children.”

#DefundingPolice and diverting public funds

Following the death of George Floyd in the US in 2020, many began calling for the defunding of police, citing the system’s corruption and racism. Defunding these structures would allow the diversion of public funds to critical mental health, social and housing services, rather than expecting police to be a universal response to all social problems.

Changing the way public funds are used to support the community is how Kilroy believes we can create “a socially just society, where every member’s human rights are met”.

“Every woman should have access to income support above the poverty level and affordable, safe, public housing,” said Kilroy.

“The more we resource alternatives to the carceral system, the less we will ‘need’ to spend on police, prisons and other statutory systems of control.”

The implicit racial biases within every person living in a society founded on white supremacy plays out in the criminal justice system, and it is marginalised women, particularly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, who pay the price.

“First Nations women are far more likely than other women to spend time in over-policed environments and to be on the wrong side of police discretion,” said Kilroy.

“They are more likely to be arrested, charged, detained, imprisoned on remand, and sentenced to imprisonment for the same offences as other women.”

Sisters Inside: How Debbie Kilroy went from prisoner to protector of women’s rights

Debbie Kilroy of Sisters Inside. Image credit: Sisters Inside.

Debbie Kilroy on breaking the poverty and prison cycle

While Kilroy had a rare opportunity to pursue study in a field that impassioned her, she notes that no such support exists for most women in prison today.

“There are severe limits placed on the number of women who can undertake tertiary study and women are penalised for studying – they earn much more if they are working,” she said.

“This is critical, because women in prison rely on their meagre income to purchase items such as personal care products, hire a laptop to enable them to study, and to pay for phone calls to keep in contact with their children.”

Even those who can access education face barriers to employment and a better life once released.

“Throughout Australia, women with a criminal record are increasingly being refused clearance to work with vulnerable populations and as a result are often refused a place in social work courses. Prisons now focus on women working, rather than studying, but the work opportunities available are largely menial, gender-stereotyped and in no way contribute to women’s ability to get employment post-release,” said Kilroy.

Sisters Inside is addressing these problems by supporting women in and out of prison to re-establish their lives, empowering them to break free of the cycles of disadvantage created by the society they live in.

Sisters Inside provides fully tailored support to each woman they work with, including practical support with health, housing, and employment pathways.

The organisation also has a strong advocacy focus, with recent campaigns including #FreeHer, addressing the problematic practice of imprisoning disadvantaged women for being unable to pay fines for minor offences. This campaign, lobbying in partnership with Aboriginal Controlled Community Organisations, succeeded in having legislation passed to end this practice of criminalising women for living in poverty, yet work remains to be done.

“There are still many women living with massive debts often associated with costs accumulated when they were unable to pay originally small fines,” said Kilroy.

“#FreeHer has raised almost $1.25 million and assisted over 400 women since January 2019 and will continue to raise funds to assist women overburdened with poverty.”

In 2003, Kilroy was awarded the Order of Australia Medal (OAM) for services to the community, and in 2004 was awarded the Australian Human Rights Medal for her tireless and passionate efforts to reform the prison system and support women to lead safe, empowered, and liberated lives.

If a woman is released from prison to homelessness and poverty, with worse mental health concerns and more trauma, we see how prison does not rehabilitate anyone,” she said.

“Women need housing, an income and health support, not more prison.”

Emma Lennon - writer - SHE DEFINED

Emma Lennon

Emma Lennon is a passionate writer, editor and community development professional. With over ten years’ experience in the disability, health and advocacy sectors, Emma is dedicated to creating work that highlights important social issues.