Women in prison Northern Territory 1970-2010

Vulnerable Groups in prison: Women in the Northern Territory

A Statistical and Policy Account 1970 - 2010


No information is available regarding women in Northern Territory prisons in the 1970s


Mothers and children policy

Section 53 of the NT Prisons (Correctional Services) Act 1980 allowed for the Director to consider accommodating children with their mothers on a case-by-case basis as long as the child was not older than five years.  Specifically the Act allowed for the following:

(1) The Director may allow a female prisoner who gives birth to a child or who has children under the age of 5 years, to have that child or those children accommodated with her in a prison.

(2) The Director shall provide adequate accommodation for the children of a female prisoner allowed under this section to have her children accommodated with her in a prison.

The Commissioner’s Directives gave the Director authority to consider accommodating a baby or child under 5 years of age in prison, taking into account accommodation arrangements, facilities available, safety and good order of the correctional centre, the interests of the child, and other relevant factors.  Cox suggests that in practice, ‘children rarely remain with their mother beyond 8 weeks after birth….  due to the lack of appropriate infrastructure’ in the Northern Territory (Cox 2008: 7).  Cox recommended introduction of leave provisions to enable mothers to spend time with children; parenting programs for female prisoners; and improved infrastructure to support parent/child contact.  More broadly, relevant legislation ought to be amended so as to emphasise the best interests of the child (Cox 8).



The number of women imprisoned during the late 1990s rose rapidly - from 50 in 1996/97; to 71 in 1996/97; and 276 in 1998/99 (Hardy 1999; Coupland 2000). Between 1996/97 and 1998/9, the increase in incarceration in the Northern Territory of Indigenous women was 485% (c.f. a increase in rates of male imprisonment at this time of 96%) (Coupland). These are flow rates, not static average daily rates.

This was attributed to the disproportionate penalisation of women for ‘good order’ offences (such as sleeping in public places) under the local Council’s use of the Territory Infringement Re-Enforcement Scheme (TINES), imposed fines and then imprisoned for fine default (Coupland 2000). Hardy also discusses the rise in the context of mandatory imprisonment provisions (see below) (Hardy 1999) (see further immediately below).


Mandatory sentencing introduced

This Northern Territory legislation provided that adults convicted of property offences had to be sentenced to imprisonment of a minimum of 14 days.  For a second offence, the minimum penalty was 3 months; for a third offence, the minimum penalty was 12 months. Where a juvenile aged between 15 and 17 was convicted of a second property offence, the court had to impose a sentence of detention of a minimum of 28 days. Property offences included stealing (but not shoplifting), criminal damage, unlawful use of a motor vehicle and unlawful entry.

The legislation allegedly led to huge increases in the imprisonment of women in particular.  In the first year after its introduction in March 1997 there was an increase of 216% in female incarceration rates and 232% in Indigenous female incarceration rates (compared with a 57% increase in male incarceration rates for the same period (Hardy 1999)).

Since mandatory sentencing commenced the number of women sentenced to periods of imprisonment has increased from 50 women in 1995/96 to 225 women in 1997/98. (It is understood that this figure has increased in 1998/99 to 276). The number of indigenous women imprisoned rose from 43 in 1995/96 to 196 in 1997/98.(It is understood that this figure has increased in 1998/99 to 252). At the same time the number of men sentenced to periods of imprisonment has increased from 724 in 1995/96 to 1422 in 1998/99. The number of indigenous men sentenced to periods of imprisonment increased from 566 in 1995/96 to 1148 in 1997/98 (Hardy).

According to Hardy:

(o)ther than the advent of mandatory sentencing there have been no other developments in the Northern Territory criminal justice system which could explain the increase in sentenced prisoners. It is therefore reasonable to assume that mandatory sentencing is directly responsible for the increases in imprisonment rates of women (Hardy 1999).

Mandatory sentencing legislation was repealed in 2001.


Secretary v The Queen – battered woman syndrome

Helen Secretary, an Indigenous woman charged with murder of her violent defacto partner, was acquitted at re-trial on the basis of evidence suggesting that she suffered from battered woman syndrome.  This was the first time this defence had been used in Australia.  Originally found guilty of manslaughter, Secretary appealed on the basis of an argument pertaining to a flawed interpretation by the lower court of the legal defence of self-defence.  The case ‘made front page news in Darwin. There was indignation in some quarters that a woman who shot a sleeping man should get away with it’ (Gray 1998). 



The av daily female prison population rose by 109% from 19 in 2001/02 to 39 in 2007/08.  This is more than three times the growth rate for male prisoners over the same period (NT Correctional Services 2008).

The Ombudsman points out that in 2000/2001, women constituted 2.8% of the prison population, but in 2008, that figure had risen to 3.6%.  Although male imprisonment figures have also risen in this period, women’s rate of incarceration is increasing faster than that of men and faster than the national rate (NT Ombudsman 21-22; see also Cox 2008).  The NT Department of Justice also indicates that the average daily proportion of females in the Northern Territory prison population in 2007-08 was 4.5%.  For 2007/08, women represented 13% of ‘conditional liberty orders’ (including probation, parole, home detention and community work orders) (NT Department of Justice 2008: 5-6).

As at June 2009, there were 44 female prisoners in custody, representing 4% of the Territory’s prison population.  During 2008/09 there were 146 sentenced female receptions, representing a 62% increase compared with 2007/08 (90).  The average daily number of adult females in custody during 2008/09 was 48, 23% higher than the previous year’s figure of 39.  Of the total of 44 female prisoners in custody at June 2009, 36 women were Indigenous (NT Department of Justice 2009).

From 2008 – 2010, the daily average numbers of women in custody jumped from 41 to 56, with a marked increase within this period of Indigenous women in custody (from 33 to 47) (NT Department of Justice 2010: 94).


Independent review – NT Correctional Services

In March 2004 CAYA Management Consulting International Inc conducted a review of Northern Territory Correctional Services.  There were no specific recommendations for female prisoners, as women’s programs were not part of the original terms of reference, however recommendation 48 related to improving family-inmate visits and correspondence. Of specific relevance to women was a call for ‘improved provisions for young children to be housed with their incarcerated mother’ (2004:32).


J Block women prisoners – submission to NT Office of Women’s Policy

Women held at J Block presented a submission identifying their poor prison conditions, on their own initiative, to the NT Office of Women’s Policy when the latter met with them in prison.  The submission presents prisoners’ viewpoints in relation to various issues, including lack of counselling provided upon admission, inadequate post-release support, inadequacies of physical infrastructure for female prisoners, and needs relating to Indigenous women in prison (J Block Prisoners 2006).


NT Correctional Services Women’s Advisory Committee commences [1]

The Northern Territory Correctional Services Women’s Advisory Committee (WAC) commenced in 2008 to provide advice to the NTCS Executive Director through the Executive Management Group on a range of issues affecting female employees, as well as correctional policy and program directions. The WAC members reflect a cross section of employees (custodial and non-custodial, Indigenous and non-Indigenous).  The Committee operates under the 'Building our Strengths' 2008-2012 Framework for advancing the status of women in the Northern Territory.

NT Correctional Services Women’s Policy

The NT Correctional Services developed a female offenders action plan – Addressing the Needs of Female Offenders in Prison: Policy and Action Plan 2007-2012.  The Plan was adopted from the Queensland Corrective Services policy and was ratified in 2008.  The Plan sets out a number of key principles; including that Correctional Services will manage female offenders with respect and regard for dignity and that they will be able to access programs and services which are responsive to their particular needs.  Key issues include disproportionate Indigenous representation in the female prison population (83% in 2007) and substance abuse.

The Plan consists of outputs with corresponding goals, key performance indicators, strategies, actions, agency responsibility, and timeframes.  So, for output ‘reducing alcohol and substance abuse’ the goal is ‘integrated and effective management and supervision of offenders’; performance indicators include incidents of assault, suicide and self-harm for female offenders; strategy is to strengthen offender management processes; and actions include providing appropriate treatment and rehabilitation programs to address female offenders’ needs.  Further outputs are a reduction in anti-social behaviour and violence and a safe, humane and responsible corrections system that reduces re-offending.

NT Ombudsman investigation into Darwin Correctional Centre – Women in Prison

This investigation responded to complaints by a number of female prisoners in the NT (Ombudsman 2008).  It found that for women in prison ‘there is neither equal treatment and nor is there differential treatment on the basis of differing needs.’ 

The main issues dealt with by the investigation concerned:

  • female access to programs, education and employment;
  • management of women with cognitive disability or acquired brain injury; and
  • the prison’s response to self-harm.

The report indicates that current practice and policy discriminates against women in prison in the NT.  In particular, it recommended that a new correctional policy for women was required; that assessment of women ought to be different to that of men (given the shorter sentences that women generally served); that rehabilitation, educational and employment programs ought to be developed for women; that women ought not to be disproportionately subject to lockdown; and that more post-release accommodation options were required.  A number of further recommendations related specifically to mental health issues, including reviewing departmental directives in relation to the use of separate confinement for prisoners with acquired brain injury, mental health issues or intellectual impairment, inter alia; and to the need to develop a capital works plan to improve women’s facilities.

The report considered a recent, large scale review of NT corrections by an independent body (CAYA Management 2005), and although the specific circumstances of women prisoners were not discussed therein, the Ombudsman notes the applicability of a number of recommendations arising from this review which might improve the situation of female prisoners (including, for example, improving prisoners’ access to children).  As a result of this review, recent improvements in terms of correctional policy and practice are acknowledged.  They include formation of a female prisoner committee.

A new Era in Corrections

A new era in Corrections was announced for 2011, initiating even tougher sentencing  and more prisons but there is nothing specific in regard to women.



There are currently no female-specific facilities.  Women inmates in the NT are accommodated at Darwin Correctional Centre or Alice Springs Correctional Centre (both low, medium and maximum security facilities).  Whilst Darwin is the principal facility for women in the Territory, with Alice Springs accommodating women shorter term and usually only on remand, this has been shifting in recent years as female prison numbers rise.

Darwin Correctional Centre [2]

Darwin Correctional Centre is situated 16km from the Darwin CBD and is a multi-classification prison with a design capacity for 554 prisoners (soon to be 590 with the addition of a 36 bed male low security facility).  Completed in 1979 with an opening capacity of 110 beds, it has grown over the years to become the main reception prison in the Northern Territory.

Facilities exist for housing remand and sentenced adult males, remand and sentenced adult females.  It has a dedicated female section that accommodates 18 maximum/medium security prisoners in one building and 16 low security prisoners in a separate area.  Women have been held in J Block – a separate area within the prison for women of all security classifications.  It has a special ‘management’ cell.

In late 2008, 8 new low security cells were added specifically for those with the lowest security rating, which is open security. The philosophy of this unit is based on the male Living Skills Unit operations and women who achieve the ‘open’ rating are eligible for work and educational leave and to take part in other reintegration placements.

In 2007/08, works to upgrade the women’s section of Darwin Correctional Centre commenced, involving 2 new ‘at risk’ cells, additional low security accommodation, improved visiting facilities and a new education and programs facility. This infrastructure was completed in late 2009.  Policies and procedures for female prisoners have also been updated to better reflect their needs (DOJ (NT) Annual Report).

Two new programs commenced in 2006/07 for women - a vocational sports and fitness course and a literary course.

Women are permitted by the Executive Director to have their children stay with them in prison where this is in the best interests of the child (as long as the offence for which she is being held does not pose a risk to the child and where adequate facilities are available). 

There were no female-specific programs in the NT, and whilst women’s needs are incorporated into correctional programs, there are no programs specifically tailored to meet the requirements of Indigenous women.

Sentenced female prisoners are assessed for their criminogenic Risks and Needs and are placed on the wait list for individual treatment to address their offending behaviour and psychological issues. This is considered the most effective use of resources as the female prison population remains relatively small. A Cognitive Skills program is offered from time to time if there are sufficient numbers of female prisoners to warrant it. This program is considered appropriate for female prisoners who present with multitude of complex needs and addresses their offence related issues such as alcohol and Illicit Drugs and offence specific issues such as violence.  The treatment provided is adapted to suit females and where appropriate Indigenous culture.

Additionally a treatment intervention worker attends the female section on a fortnightly basis to address issues surrounding treatment as they arise.

Alcohol and other Drugs Prison in Reach program provides assessment, individual and group programs to female prisoners who are on remand and to female prisoners whose sentence length is less than 6 months.   

Alice Springs Correctional Centre

Alice Springs Correctional Centre is situated approximately 25 kilometres south of Alice Springs, along the Stuart Highway. It has been operating since 1996 and is the Territory's principal maximum security facility. The centre accommodates male prisoners of all security ratings with the capacity for short-term accommodation of female prisoners. 

Alice Springs Correctional Centre has a total capacity for 400 prisoners, with 316 beds within the secure perimeter fence and 84 beds in the low security Cottages located outside the main fence.  The Cottages operate with minimal officer supervision and prisoners accommodated there are responsible for their own cooking and cleaning.

Women are separately accommodated in H Block, a 24-bed facility within the main ASCC perimeter fence surrounded by medium and maximum security male prisoners (low security male prisoners are held outside the perimeter fence in the Cottages).  H block has one dormitory-style sleeping area and an eating/TV area.  If individual confinement is considered necessary, this occurs in one of the men’s blocks.  There is an outdoor caged area at the front of H block and a fenced area at the rear (NT Ombudsman)


Belton, S & Barclay, L (2008) J Block Women of Art Project Report: Evaluating Community Education in a Prison Setting, Dawn House/Ruby Gaea


Caya Management Consulting  (2004) A Review of the Northern Territory Correctional Services – adult custodial operations: A Path to Good Corrections, Canada


Coupland, E (2000) ‘Women in Prison: Mandatory Imprisonment, Alternative Law Journal 25(5) 249

Coupland, E (2001) ‘Dramatic rise in imprisonment rates for Indigenous women’, Balance 8

Cox, S (2008) Little Children (of Women in Prison) Are Sacred (too), NTLAC, NT

Gray, S (1998) ‘Aboriginal women and the ‘battered woman’ syndrome: Secretary v The Queen’ 4(13) Indigenous Law Bulletin 18


Hardy, J (1999) Mandatory sentencing: impact on imprisonment rates of women in the NT


Hardy, J (2000) ‘Mandatory Sentencing in the Northern Territory: a breach of human rights, 11(3) Public Law Review 172

J block prisoners (2006), Women Behind Bars: Passage to a Brighter Future, unpublished paper prepared for the Office of Women’s Policy (NT) (appendix to NT Ombudsman’s report (2008))


NT Correctional Services, (2008) Addressing the Needs of Female Offenders in Prison: Policy and Action Plan 2007-2012, NT Correctional Services, Darwin NT

NT Ombudsman, (2008) Women in Prison: Report of the Investigation into Complaints from Women Prisoners at Darwin Correctional Centre,


Department of Justice, (2008) Correctional Services Annual Statistics 2007-08, Department of Justice (NT)

Department of Justice, (2009) Correctional Services Annual Statistics 2008-09, Department of Justice (NT)


Department of Justice (2010) Northern Territory Quarterly Crime and Justice Statistics: Issue 31 – March Quarter 2010


[1] Go to http://www.nt.gov.au/justice/corrservices/comm_partnerships/advisory_groups.shtml

[2] Taken from Department of Justice (NT) website: http://www.nt.gov.au/justice/