Debbie Kilroy was sitting quietly at home in Brisbane on the afternoon of 6 January this year, scrolling through social media posts on her phone. That was unusual enough: the criminal lawyer and fierce advocate for women rarely sits, unless it’s in a courtroom. And few people would accuse her of being quiet. Ever.
But this is what relaxing means in the life of a woman who has barely paused on her path from wild youth to imprisonment and then to lawyer, high-profile advocate for women in the criminal justice system, and prison abolitionist who counts the iconic American activist, writer and academic Angela Davis as a friend. For Kilroy, even Sundays mean constant vigilance. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram: it’s often where things turn up first. Anything to do with imprisonment that might concern Sisters Inside, the advocacy, support and abolitionist group she founded nearly thirty years ago.
The sixth of January was looking like an average Sunday. Then: bingo. A post about Aboriginal dancer Ruben Yorkshire, who had been arrested in Western Australia for unpaid fines and taken to the high-security Hakea Prison to serve out a debt of less than $1700. He had no criminal history.
Kilroy saw red. Her thoughts flew immediately to 2014 and the horrific death of Aboriginal woman Ms Dhu after she was arrested and held in a police lock-up — also in Western Australia — for unpaid fines.
“I was so pissed off with governments and police and courts locking up Aboriginal people because they’re poor,” Kilroy says. “The disgusting way they are treated. Watching police drag Ms Dhu from her cell, unconscious. It was inhumane. I cried that day.” Another thing she rarely does.
That Sunday she immediately called Gerry Georgatos, a researcher and human rights activist in Western Australia. They devised a campaign called #FreeThePeople to raise $100,000 to free Aboriginal mothers imprisoned for unpaid fines, and to prevent the imprisonment of many more who, like Ruben, might be picked up by police at any time. Four hundred such warrants have been issued at the time of writing; the WA government will not disclose the number of women involved.
“Aboriginal people are imprisoned because they are poor. It’s as simple as that,” Kilroy says. “We keep them in poverty, all over the country. It is worse for Aboriginal women, especially those with violent partners, and those who are mothers. We — non-Aboriginal Australians — are responsible for this, and we can be responsible for fixing it.”
There’s an explosive concentration of energy and anger in the air when Kilroy and Georgatos take something on, even though they’re on opposite sides of the continent. #FreeThePeople took off fast, attracting donors from all parts of the political spectrum. Within twelve hours, nearly $100,000 had been raised.
“I just started tweeting. I targeted white middle-class women with high social media profiles, like Jane Caro, Anne Summers, Clementine Ford. I wanted the white world to know,” she says. “And we targeted privileged white men too, like Russell Crowe and Wil Anderson. Russell has twenty-seven million followers. And they all retweeted it. Yael Stone [Orange Is the New Black] picked up on it in the US, sent it around. In their tweets a lot of them said, ‘I support this, will you?’” The campaign also attracted media from around the globe.
It was vintage Kilroy. “Well, when I’m pissed off and have an idea, I go for it,” she shrugs. The fund hit $200,000 within days and the first fines were paid, the first Aboriginal woman released. On the same day, the fund paid the fines of a twenty-two-year-old Aboriginal mother who was homeless after escaping extreme violence, and living in fear of arrest over court-imposed fines. The money also paid for safe accommodation for her and for her children for twelve months.
The fund had reached $400,000 by June. Of its success, Kilroy says simply, “It gave ordinary people out there a chance to actively change things. There are many good people who feel frustrated, unable to be directly involved. This was direct and immediate. It’s uplifting, and not just for me and for the donors. Aboriginal women have been contacting me saying, wow, people actually care about us.”
Not one Aboriginal woman has been jailed for fine defaulting since the start of the campaign, and new legislation to end current laws that imprison impoverished people for fine default was tabled in the WA parliament in June 2019. But the ongoing anger and outrage felt by Aboriginal people is understandable: it is now twenty-eight years since the royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody recommended this law change, and two years since the Law Reform Commission urged Western Australia to abolish the same statutes. Its report restated the obvious: that poverty, low literacy levels and the itinerant lifestyles of some Aboriginal people meant they were more likely to default on fines. It recommended Aboriginal people be allowed to work off their fines.
Debbie Kilroy left Boggo Road Gaol exactly a year after the royal commission released its report into Aboriginal deaths in custody. She established Sisters Inside the same year, vowing to work for incarcerated women and their children in every way she could. Since then the organisation has achieved major change in the system, initiated countless programs, advocated and supported thousands of women, and worked at the highest levels of government.
Yet arguably it is the quieter, lower-profile work she does as an individual and through Sisters Inside that is delivering real and lasting change for women and girls at risk throughout Queensland. One could say her steely commitment to changing the lives of Aboriginal women and girls has become a calling, a siren song she cannot ignore. But her twenty-four-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week attention encompasses all young women and girls in and around the criminal justice system, as she plots initiatives to get them out and keep them out of prison. Many of these actions don’t involve legislation and amendments and votes in parliament, but rather a low-key, one-on-one approach. Let’s call it micro-justice.
One of the hardest things for women sentenced to a term of imprisonment is the abandonment of children to a world without them, a world of displacement, frequent change, foster carers, separation from siblings, grief and shame. It may mean poverty (or worsened poverty), homelessness, family dysfunction, disrupted schooling. For Aboriginal children, the displacement can feel and be severe, depending on the strength of links to wider family and culture.
Kilroy’s own children were separated when she and her husband, Joe Kilroy — a Butchulla man and traditional owner of K’gari (Fraser Island) — were both sentenced to prison for drug offences in the mid 1980s. One child went to Debbie’s mother and the other to her grandmother. She witnessed firsthand the effects of a parent’s incarceration on young children, and on her release struggled to normalise her own life and theirs. Nevertheless she watched on helplessly as, within a few years, her daughter collided with the criminal justice system and was herself incarcerated.
Kilroy had promised to watch closely over the children of Aboriginal women with whom she had done time. Quietly, unobtrusively, she kept her eye on their lives, their movements, who they hung out with, their school attendance. Their own collisions with the law. She did this for years; some of them were toddlers when she began, and she kept watching as they grew through uneasy childhoods and adolescence. She understood them; she’d been a tearaway herself, lived on the streets, knew the wild thrills of law-breaking, the allure and terror and status of violence, of juvenile detention. But understanding and vigilance weren’t keeping this new generation out of trouble.
She decided then on a group approach. Organised staff and transport, canvases and paint, and the Sisters Inside Young Women’s Art Group was born. It took time to convince some of the young women, but within months there was a growing number of regular members showing up. More fun than stealing cars, one of them told her one night, and she knew she had them.
Out of this early concern for the ongoing relationship between incarcerated women and their children came several of the keystone programs of Sisters Inside: the Reconnect program and the Building on Women’s Strengths, or BOWS, program. The former supports twelve- to eighteen-year-olds whose mothers are incarcerated or who have been criminalised themselves or are at risk of homelessness. It aims to improve connections with extended family, work, education, training and their communities, and includes counselling and support for young people and their families, as well as advocacy with prison authorities.
“Of course, it is highly traumatising for kids when their mother goes to prison,” Kilroy says. “They feel ashamed. They think it’s their fault — that they’re bad or have done something wrong. When they visit their mum in prison they are often treated badly too, as if they are the prisoner. So they are imbued with a sense of shame. They internalise the trauma and the feeling of abandonment.”
It’s then that older children begin getting into trouble, she says. “They’re made to feel like criminals, so of course they see themselves as bad. We’re always saying to them: you are in control of your destiny. You are not bad — do not believe the negative things they throw at you. We are so much more than the worst thing we have ever done.”
She says guards at youth prisons say exactly the same things to young people now as they did to her when she was in youth detention: you’re no good, you’re bad. She’d answer back: well I’ll show you how bad I can be.
“I hear the screws say that and the kids reply. I can see them thinking it. And I say no — it’s the systems that are bad. But the kids believe their life will play out from there. It’s over four decades since I was in a youth prison, and it’s still the same. This is the prison industry. A pipeline from youth prison to adult prison. The system needs bodies behind bars. The system needs jobs. It’s an industry. And it’s institutionalising.”
Neta-Rie Mabo (named for her much-loved grandmother, Bonita Mabo, who died recently) came under the gimlet eye of Debbie Kilroy in her troubled youth. She’d been running wild with other friends around Logan — “partying, taking drugs, stealing clothes we couldn’t afford, getting into stolen cars.”
“It was pretty risky behaviour,” she says. “I got picked up, spent a couple of nights in the watch house.”
These days, Neta-Rie Mabo is a “multifaceted artist” who works with oils, acrylic, sculpture, mixed media and more. Her images of her grandfather, Eddie Mabo, won the People’s Choice Award at the 2014 Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards, and the work now hangs in the Australian parliament. She designed the commemorative fifty-cent piece for the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Mabo decision in the High Court and the fiftieth anniversary of the referendum to decide Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ right to vote.
Alongside being an award-winning artist, Neta-Rie is the mother of Poipi, two, and the youth programs manager at Sisters Inside. She also runs the extraordinarily successful Young Women’s Art Group along with three other youth programs. A Sisters Inside bus transports the young women of the art group to the organisation’s headquarters in South Brisbane, where they work to produce oil and watercolour paintings, drawings and clay work. The group is about peer support, too: this is where they come to talk, ask questions, seek help. For many of these women, dysfunctional home lives mean this is the highlight of their week.
Neta-Rie’s great piece of luck came after she was sacked from her bar job fifteen years ago and Debbie Kilroy offered her some part-time office work. “I became aware then that she was watching me,” Mabo says. “She was stealthy, just watching and making sure I was okay at work. Then she encouraged me to enrol at uni to do art, and to become a youth worker.”
Kilroy’s involvement became crucial in what followed for the young woman who was, despite her famous family, adrift in the world. “Deb constantly supported me, believed in me,” she says. “That kind of belief makes you believe you can really do stuff. That’s been her biggest impact. There’s something about having someone constantly there, someone in the world who has your back and would do anything for you when you need it.
“I came from a family with alcohol issues; I couldn’t rely on them. And now it’s the same for these young women in the art group. She is the person they believe in. They know if they ever need something they can contact Deb.”
While Mabo’s status in the art world has grown with prizes, exhibitions and sales, the young women in the art group are all getting a taste of it through the increasingly popular yearly auction of their work held by Sisters Inside. Apart from family and friends, Kilroy ensures that local lawyers, magistrates and politicians — anyone with a big wallet, she jokes — are there to bid.
It is unfailingly competitive. Winning bids can be anything from $50 to $1500. But the young women voted years ago not to take their individual earnings home — rather, they’ve pooled the funds each time to go on some kind of adventure. To Uluru or the Great Barrier Reef.
“She [Kilroy] is changing their lives,” Mabo says. “Where else could they get that kind of experience? Their confidence grows and grows.”
Softly spoken Kyra, fourteen, has been coming to the Young Women’s Art Group for two years now. After a life of relying on her own resources and instincts, she loves the support and routine of the weekly group. Her mother went to prison when she was three; she has been in fifteen foster homes since. Her family — a brother, twenty-three (born when her mum was thirteen), twelve-year-old twin sisters and a three-year-old baby brother — are scattered. She barely sees them. Her mum is still inside.
“I’ve had to trust myself,” she shrugs, her eyes clear and steady. “I’m the only person I can rely on.”
In the past, her idea of excitement has been to break into houses or steal cars. Once, in an altercation with police, she was attacked by a police dog; she pulls up the sleeve of her shirt to reveal the scars on her arms. Now, excitement is the art group.
“It’s helped a lot,” she says, swivelling to scoop up a toddler wandering past in the big art room and settling the child on her hip. She looks around the room. “I trust them.”
Jamie, fifteen, is one of the group’s original members, quiet like the others but with a spark of mischief in her eyes. She’s been coming for eight years, following her two older sisters, aged twenty-two and twenty-one. Their mum is still inside. What would she be doing if she hadn’t come along to Sisters Inside? She doesn’t blink. “Getting in trouble,” she grins. She’s in Year 10 at school now and wants to go to university from there.
Destiny, seventeen, and Jamielca, eighteen, are two of the big success stories. Destiny began coming to the art program because her cousins came. She describes the experience as “a gamechanger” for her. “I love it here,” she says. “It’s my second home. I love the acceptance. There’s no judgement.”
Destiny’s story aligns with those of the others, but she never got into “bad stuff,” she says. “Others around me did. But I was in a group and we kept each other honest. I’d look at these others and think, you are not cool, stealing a car.” She says the group’s trip to the Great Barrier Reef changed her life. “It reminds you how much there is to lose.” Destiny is in Year 12 now and is thinking of engineering, perhaps as part of a career in the navy. But art is “a pretty high priority”: “I disappear into it,” she says. “There’s not a lot of groups like this.”
Jamielca graduated from high school in 2017 and is now on the payroll at Sisters Inside, working in administration and assisting with youth programs. She was a “little baby” when her cousins began coming to programs at Sisters Inside. As soon as Jamielca was old enough, she tagged along.
She regularly goes into the youth detention centre with Neta-Rie. “We paint, and the girls come and talk to us. Some of my family members are there,” she says. “I’d never been in that environment before, and it felt a bit sad. That kids are in there. My mum was always telling us to keep out of trouble. I’d been around when other kids were doing stuff but I just didn’t want to do it. But some of the kids in there, in trouble, they’re homeless. They’ve been kicked out, or have no homes, nothing. I always had a home.”
Jamielca wants to do youth work, at Sisters Inside and at the detention centre. “Art’s a big part of that,” she says. She’s also involved in camps run by Sisters Inside for young women, often at Minjerribah (Stradbroke Island), and most recently with some young women at odds with the police.
“We went to the beach, paddleboarding, talked with [counsellor] Antonia Bourke about intergenerational trauma. They understood what she was saying. The girls get to experience new things, and everyone is happy after that.”
Prison sentences — their effect on women and their children, how they impinge on human rights — are rarely the subject of polite cafe conversation. But one of the almost invisible, unspoken facts about prison is the number of women who languish inside on remand. That is, with no conviction. The same goes for young women in the watch house and in detention. At the moment, about one-third of all women in Queensland prisons are there on remand.
Mostly it is a matter of bail — access to it, knowledge of it, understanding of it. Few incarcerated women or girls know the process of getting bail, or anything to do with their legal rights. This has become one of Debbie Kilroy’s personal quests: to identify and free every woman and girl on remand and support them until they come to trial. Many of these women are refused bail because they lack homes or mental health support services. Kilroy organises both.
After a full week — including nights — of being in court for the law firm she established, of advocacy with government and non-government officials, of oversight of Sisters Inside’s fifteen funded programs, and of frequent media and public speaking engagements, Kilroy will often find herself inside. On many weekends, she will visit Brisbane’s women’s prisons — at Wacol and the newly refurbished facility in Gatton — or even the Townsville Women’s Correctional Centre, talking to women, explaining, gathering enough information for bail applications. But additional funding has now seen Sisters Inside appoint bail support workers in both cities. They interview women to assess their eligibility and help them make an application to the court. Other workers at Sisters Inside help with further necessary arrangements, including housing and support for women following their release.
For young women detained in the Brisbane watch house — sometimes for up to three weeks — a new bail support program has been raised under the banner of Yangah, a Yagumbeh word for “get up.”
“The numbers of kids going up on remand was huge, worse than ever,” Kilroy says. “I began talking about a bail blitz to get them out of the watch house. They’re often kept there because the detention centre is overcrowded and there are no beds. But there are no support systems at all for kids in the watch house.”
Sisters Inside staff organise bail for children and support for them outside. This support includes housing, arrangements around schooling and transport for court appearances, and getting them involved in the art program. Under the Yangah program, there have been ninety-eight successful bail applications by young women; the government has announced funding for the program until September 2019. Under the Supreme Court bail program, ninety-six women have been released.
It’s hard to quantify how many young women have been diverted from a repeating cycle of poverty, crime and imprisonment by the subtle yet insistent — and powerful — interventions driven by one woman. It is not just about steely determination and an enormous heart. It is Kilroy’s genius for enactment that has made these interventions so successful. She doesn’t waste too much time talking about them. If she had a motto it would be: Pick up the phone. Make it happen.
And there is the happy surprise of the #FreeThePeople campaign’s wider outcomes. Yes, freedom has been delivered, and empowerment, but also to unexpected quarters. The campaign has handed agency and new perspectives not just to impoverished women but also to many middle-class Australian women who, despite a real desire to contribute, to enact change, had not previously found a direct or obvious pathway to do so. To date, more than 8186 donors have contributed to the funding to release women imprisoned for unpaid fines.
This is one of the strongest and most powerful effects of micro-justice: that it pulls in those who aren’t and can’t be Debbie Kilroy but who nevertheless feel a deep commitment to social justice and to lives lived with much more risk and less privilege than theirs. The immediate and practical outcomes of initiatives like the #FreeThePeople campaign allow a pathway for others to step up, and a real sense of community with women in the criminal justice system — especially Aboriginal women and their children. Let’s call it win-win. •
This essay first appeared in Griffith Review 65: Crimes and Punishments, edited by Ashley Hay.