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Type: Thesis
Title: Punishing Disability: The Lived Experience of Incarcerated Women with Cognitive Disabilities in Australian Prisons
Author: Toohey, Julie-Anne
Issue Date: 2020
School/Discipline: School of Social Sciences
Abstract: While the needs of women prisoners have received greater acknowledgement within corrective services and academic scholarship, the smaller group of incarcerated women with cognitive disabilities has not generated the same level of awareness. It is reasonable to conclude that in some respects, incarcerated women with cognitive disabilities share similar characteristics with their male counterparts, such as elevated rates of reoffending. However, the difference lies in the notably higher levels of mental illness and rates of abuse, often associated with susceptibility to coercion and poor adaptive skills. This group of women is also exposed to exclusionary processes, both in and out of prison, which may contribute to the cycle of offending. More broadly, the extant literature draws links between ‘social exclusion’ and ‘incarceration’, but little is known about its impact on incarcerated women with cognitive disabilities. This study addresses this gap by providing unique insight into the role of social exclusion in fostering and maintaining the process of ‘othering’, via stigmatisation that excludes those who are considered ‘different’. The study’s central argument is that cognitive disability and incarceration are key elements contributing to social exclusion, and that this relationship is mutually reinforcing, in that social exclusion perpetuates cycles of offending. The study has three key objectives: to examine how social exclusion is a factor in pathways to prison, how social exclusion manifests within the prison setting and finally, the capacity of prisons to respond to the needs of cognitively disabled women. To achieve these objectives, this research privileged the voices of incarcerated women with cognitive disabilities in three Australian states. Between August 2017 and April 2018, semi-structured interviews were conducted in four women’s prisons with all women with identifiable cognitive disabilities, as well as the prison practitioners tasked with their cases. The results reveal histories of trauma beginning in childhood, including physical and sexual abuse, foster care, juvenile detention, homelessness, familial suicide and dislocation from communities. The interviews also highlight the role of substance misuse and poor mental health, which often generate challenging behaviours in public spaces. Police interventions, signalling the initial step into the criminal justice system, and limited understanding of court processes contribute to the routine incarceration of this group of women. Cognitive disability is frequently a barrier to bail or parole, with police and court officials adhering to a widely held belief that a lack of capacity to either understand or adhere to bail/parole conditions will result in a breach of conditions. The prison itself contributes to pre-existing trauma via institutional protocols such as strip searches and isolation. In an environment premised on punishment, surveillance and containment, cognitively disabled women with complex needs are regularly placed in solitary confinement with pharmacological interventions not uncommon. The research findings are beneficial for Corrective Services and other criminal justice stakeholders, including prison authorities and practitioners, sentencing advisory councils, members of the judiciary, agencies such a Legal Aid, as well as human rights and disability advocates. The findings draw attention to the need for alternatives to incarceration for this vulnerable prison population. Importantly, the study provides a gateway to similar research in other national and international contexts.
Advisor: Brewer, Russell
Michell, Dee
Halsey, Mark
Dissertation Note: Thesis (Ph.D.) -- University of Adelaide, School of Social Sciences, 2020
Keywords: Women
social exclusion
cognitive disability
Provenance: This electronic version is made publicly available by the University of Adelaide in accordance with its open access policy for student theses. Copyright in this thesis remains with the author. This thesis may incorporate third party material which has been used by the author pursuant to Fair Dealing exceptions. If you are the owner of any included third party copyright material you wish to be removed from this electronic version, please complete the take down form located at:
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