How Debbie Kilroy achieves change for women and girls in the criminal legal system

How Debbie Kilroy achieves change for women and girls in the criminal legal system

Debbie Kilroy
Debbie Kilroy OAM is the CEO of Sisters Inside and one of Australia’s leading advocates for the human rights of women and girls in the criminal legal system. 

Debbie is the second woman to feature in Denise Shrivell’s new monthly Q&A series, in which she speaks with women who’re making an impact on an important issue. The aim is to inspire more of us to see what’s possible on getting involved in issues and causes we care about. Denise is very active on Twitter in the #AUSPOL community, you can follow her here.


What is your role and what do you actually do?

As CEO of Sister Inside Inc. in Queensland, I lead our individual and systemic advocacy.  Sisters Inside exists to advocate for the human rights of women and girls in the criminal legal system, and their children.  We also provide services in response to the unmet human rights and needs of criminalised women in Queensland.  I actively work towards dismantling the prison industrial complex. Much of my day-to-day work involves public advocacy on issues affecting criminalised women, mainly focused on highlighting the fundamental injustice and racism of the so-called criminal ‘justice’ system.  Because Sisters is the largest organisation in this space in Australia, I also contribute alongside like-minded organisations to lobbying in other states and territories, nationally and internationally.  Sisters Inside has NGO Consultative Status at the United Nations, so I’m increasingly working with organisations in other countries to address the massive and growing over-imprisonment of women and girls for minor, non-violent offences, world-wide.

Sisters Inside is driven by the principle “nothing about us, without us”.  So wherever I travel, much of my time is spent engaging with criminalised women and girls:  I am guided by the perceptions, priorities and needs of these women and girls in everything I do.

How did your interest in community engagement start?

I have a substantial criminal history – I spent over 20 years in and out of children and women’s prisons in Queensland.  During my last sentence, I became involved in prisoner advisory groups and, for the first time, realised that I could have a voice and contribute to improving the situation of myself and other women prisoners.  Upon leaving prison, I promised the other women that I would continue to address the injustices and violence they experienced on a daily basis.  As soon as I was released, I began developing Sisters Inside with the women in prison.

What is your main focus right now?

All my work is driven by abolition though decarceration strategies to reduce the number of women and girls in prisons.  The rate of imprisonment for women and girls, particularly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and girls, has grown exponentially over the past couple of decades.  When I was in last in prison (1989-92) there were a total of about 100 women in prison in Queensland – now there are approximately 1000 women on any one day.  Most are imprisoned due to poverty and/or trauma.  Approximately 40% nationally are on remand:  they are usually refused bail due to homelessness or lack of rehabilitation or mental health services.  In other words, these women and girls are imprisoned for failures of the state to meet their basic human rights.

I’m also particularly supporting an emerging campaign to address missing and murdered Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and girls.  We know that, nationally, First Nations women are murdered at 5 times the rate of other women.  Most Australian states and territories don’t bother counting the number of missing First Nations women and girls, however the evidence available suggests that the rate at which First Nations women are missing is at least 3 times the rate of other women.

How do you believe women can have a positive impact in this space?

Being very pragmatic, it’s not in men’s interest to address issues affecting women.  The ‘sisters’ must ‘do it for themselves’ (to quote well-worn lyrics).  It is only through working together to address the issues affecting the most vulnerable and marginalised women, that we can build a society which is better for all women.

Tell us about the constructive initiatives happening in your area?

I believe it’s important that initiatives are concurrently practical, educational and political.  The #FreeHer campaign, for example, aims to stop individual Aboriginal mothers from being imprisoned for non-payment of fines; to educate the community about the realities of women’s imprisonment; and to lobby the WA Government to legislate to end the practice of imprisonment for non-payment of fines.  It’s amazing how quickly people come on board and support a campaign, once they’re aware of the phenomenal injustice being done to our First Nations women.  So far, over 9,000 people have donated over $½ million to pay off women’s fines, and the WA Government has been forced to table draft legislation to stop the practice.

At a wider level, the decarceration message is starting to kick in!  The Queensland Government is leading the way in trying to divert large numbers of women from prison.  For example, Sisters Inside is funded to have workers for both women and girls in the main Brisbane Watchhouse every day, to help women and girls to access the resources they need to get bail, then support them in court and post-release.  For those who are imprisoned on remand, our Supreme Court Bail program in all women’s prisons supports eligible women to have a second opportunity to apply for bail.  I’m hoping that, with our evident success in keeping women out of prison once they’re adequately supported in the community, other states and territories will follow this lead.

What would you do if you were PM for a day?

The women we work with are largely affected by state, rather than federal, legislation.  If I was PM for a day, I’d address 3 of the few areas which are responsibilities of the Australian Government.  Firstly, I would ensure land rights were given back to First Nations people. This would start a healing process that we inflicted since invasion of this county. Secondly, I would end poverty. Everyone would receive a guaranteed minimum income.  We have enough wealth in this county to ensure that no one lived in poverty. Thirdly I would end homelessness. Affordable housing would be available for everyone in Australia.

If I was Premier of a State, or Chief Minister of a Territory, I would close all youth prisons immediately. I’d decriminalise minor, non-violent offences, such as public nuisance and drug possession charges, which account for the vast majority of women prisoners.  Trauma is the other key contributor to criminalisation of women, with the vast majority of women prisoners having survived violence.  I’d outlaw re-traumatising practices routinely practiced in Australian women’s prisons, particularly strip searching and solitary confinement.  I’d ensure domestic violence legislation was gendered (for example, since de-gendered legislation was introduced, breach of DVO’s has joined the top ten reasons for women’s imprisonment in Queensland!)  And, I’d outlaw mandatory sentences which do not allow the judiciary to make judgements based on the wider context of an offence.  Once prisons emptied, I would close them one by one.

What other priorities do you have in your life and how do you manage these?

I am privileged to enjoy deep relationships with both my biological and chosen family.  My two granddaughters are the joy of my life, and continually remind me of the importance of my commitment to future generations.  For me, work is a lifestyle – I wasted too many years in prison and am committed to achieving all I can in the free world.  Given my hectic lifestyle, I’m fortunate not to have dependent children – you can hand grandchildren back!  But my husband and the rest of the family certainly help keep my feet on the ground when I’m home.

What’s a tangible idea we can all adopt to make a difference?

I can’t do better than reiterate Amanda McKenzie’s 3 key strategies:

  1. Use your time. Learn about the realities of women’s imprisonment, particularly the racism that underpins the massive over-imprisonment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women. Learn about these women’s collective past and the genocidal practices which continue to re-traumatise our First Nations people.  If you are not a First Nations woman, learn about white privilege and how we can usefully support our First Nations sisters.  Form book clubs or discussion groups to engage with the rich literature available and, call out racism wherever you find it!
  2. Use your money. Donate to organisations advocating for criminalised women, or community-owned First Nations organisations and campaigns. Follow your local organisation for criminalised women and Sisters Inside on social media, and contribute to campaigns such as #FreeHer or #Sorry Business, as they arise.
  3. Use your voice. Follow-up on campaigns through writing to or talking with your local MP. In particular, there are local campaigns related to deaths in custody in most states and territories.  Join action groups campaigning for change and attend rallies.  Follow the lead of our First Nations people and support them in ways they find useful – don’t try to lead the action!
How do you manage your own self care?

I function best when I do intense, daily fitness training. Friends and colleagues say that they can tell whether I’ve worked out in the morning by my energy level during the day!

How do you stay informed and updated with the news?

I am connected to amazing women around the world who are leaders in prison abolition. I am active on Twitter and follow a large variety of powerful people who might impact criminalised women – positively or negatively.  I have also built and maintained relationships with key stakeholders over many years.  This means I hear any significant news very early, and am directed to the relevant mainstream media or other information sources (such as academic studies) in time to prepare and make comment.

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