16th Reintegration Puzzle Conference

Perth Convention and Exhibition Centre
1-3 June 2022

Changing Seasons,
Changing Lives

Punishing Disability: The Lived Experience of Incarcerated Women With Cognitive Disabilities

In a criminal justice system created by and for men, the needs of incarcerated women have only recently received acknowledgment, with corrective services implementing limited program opportunities that are not modelled on those available in male prisons. However, the smaller group of incarcerated women with cognitive disabilities (CD) has failed to generate a corresponding level of awareness.
It is reasonable to conclude that in some respects women with CD may share similar experiences to their male counterparts. What is markedly different are the disturbingly higher levels of mental illness and abuse – physical, emotional, sexual and financial.
Using a framework of social exclusion, this research project privileges the voices of cognitively impaired women in the Townsville Women’s Correctional Centre, Brisbane Women’s Correctional Centre, the Mary Hutchinson Women’s Prison (Tasmania) and the Adelaide Women’s Prison. Their life stories are confronting. For the most part, their futures are bleak.
Interviews with key prison personnel highlight the deficiencies in a system that fails to recognise the needs of women referred to in several studies as ‘statistically insignificant’. They also believed that it would be optimistic to expect the NDIS to represent a panacea for incarcerated women with CD.
It is hoped that corrective services and other stakeholders will use the findings to instigate measures that are, at the very least, in-line with the UN’s Convention on the Rights of People With Disabilities and importantly, contribute to the demise of prisons as ‘accommodation’ for women who have experienced on-going stigma and entrenched social exclusion.


Julie-Anne Toohey
Academic Developer Criminology, University of Adelaide
, University of Adelaide

Julie-Anne holds a Masters Degree in Criminology and Corrections from the University of Tasmania. This research, conducted in Tasmania's Risdon Prison, focused upon the importance of maintaining connections between incarcerated parents and their children. While at UTAS, Julie-Anne was also part of an environmental criminology research team, led by Professor Rob White, examining the illegal dumping of hazardous waste in Australia, as well as a state-wide project investigating levels of land and water toxicity in selected sites. Julie-Anne is in the final stages of her PhD through University of Adelaide. Her research is centred on the lived experiences of incarcerated women with cognitive disabilities, and how social exclusion contributes to pathways to prison continues to manifest in the prison setting. Women from the Townsville Women's Correctional Centre, Brisbane Women's Correctional Centre, Adelaide Women's Prison and the Mary Hutchinson Women's Prison (Hobart) shared their life experiences, with e perspectives of key prison personnel also included. Julie-Anne has taught Criminology in the University of Tasmania, University of South Australia, Flinders University and University of Adelaide. She is a human rights activist, questioning the juxtaposition between Australia's signing of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and the punitiveness of a CJS that continues to imprison those with disabilities, including cognitive impairment and mental health disorders, at an unacceptably high rate. She supports decarceration, and believes that appropriate, well-resourced and sustainable community options that positively support people with complex needs are essential in shutting down the prison's 'revolving door'.

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