A question of meaning: First Peoples women and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment

Ms Sjharn Leeson1,2, Dr John Rynne1,2
1Griffith University, Southport, Australia, 2Griffith Criminology Institute, Mount Gravatt, Australia

Understanding how incarceration is lived and survived by First Peoples women is an evolving section of the penological literature, primarily concerned with prison performance measurement. However, such investigations naturally raise questions regarding qualitative differences in experience, creating an avenue to interrogate the one-size-fits-all approach to criminal justice that prioritises the values and worldview of non-First Peoples men. Consequently, from research conducted in the Northern Territory and Western Australia regarding the lived experience of incarceration for First Peoples women emerges reflections on prison practices and the meaning of torture, and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment (“ill treatment”) for gendered and culturally-diverse groups.

While the parameters of torture are explicitly demarcated in such United Nations instruments as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, what ill-treatment means is considerably more fluid and subject to interpretation. With that in mind, there is room to argue that common aspects of incarceration may constitute ill-treatment of First Peoples women. This paper considers the potential for First Peoples women to experience ill-treatment during incarceration, and explores the behaviours and approaches to incarceration that may question Australia’s compliance with its international obligations regarding the prohibition of ill-treatment.


Sjharn Leeson is a doctoral candidate at Griffith University examining the potential application of prison quality to gendered and culturally-diverse groups. Her thesis utilises aspirational human rights standards and commentary from incarcerated First Peoples women in the Northern Territory and Western Australia to determine “what matters” in prison. The aim of her research is to create a framework of prison performance measurement that builds on prison quality to appropriately account for intersectionality and the far-reaching impacts of colonisation.



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