Women have always made up only a small proportion of prisoners in New Zealand. In the 19th century few New Zealand jails had separate facilities for female prisoners. Women were open to harassment from both warders and fellow prisoners. Until the appointment of matrons in some prisons in the 1860s, most prison staff were men. Women were sometimes imprisoned with their small children, who were placed in an extremely vulnerable situation.
While relatively few women were imprisoned, female prisoners were widely regarded as incorrigible ‘degenerates’, beyond hope of reformation. Prostitutes often featured among the women prisoners, particularly those known as ‘rowdy women’, who lived lives of public drinking and disorderly behaviour.
In the 1890s groups such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the National Council of Women argued that separate prisons should be established for women. Arthur Hume, the inspector general of prisons, rejected this idea on the grounds that there were too few women prisoners.
In 1913, four years after Hume retired, New Zealand’s first women’s prison was established at Addington. A women’s reformatory was opened at Point Halswell, Wellington, in 1920. Arohata Girls’ Borstal (later Arohata Women’s Prison) was opened in 1944. Most women continued to be held in separate sections of mixed prisons. The assumption remained that most female offenders were incorrigible habitual criminals – so the pace of reform for women prisoners was even slower than that for men. The training programmes in women’s prisons were geared towards domestic tasks, with the assumption that women should be mothers and homemakers.
Expansion of facilities, 1950–90
The women’s prison at Addington was closed in 1950. Women prisoners were then held in special sections of Paparua, Mt Eden and Dunedin prisons. In the 1960s plans to build new women’s prisons were put on hold while Pāremoremo was being built. Women inmates at Dunedin Prison rioted in 1964, in disgust at poor conditions. A new women’s prison was opened at Paparua, near Christchurch, in 1974. There were some complaints that, as the majority of prisoners came from the North Island, the location made it difficult for families, particularly children, to visit.
Arohata continued as a girls’ borstal, but was converted into a youth prison in 1981 and a women’s prison in 1987.
Babies in prison
During the 20th century prison regulations meant that women were not allowed to keep babies with them in prison. From 2002, in Arohata and Christchurch women’s prisons, mothers who met certain criteria were able to live in self-care units with their babies until the children were six months old. The Corrections (Mothers with Babies) Amendment Act 2008 came into effect in 2011, allowing eligible mothers to keep their children with them until the age of two.
In 2011 women were only around 6% of the prison population. The number of women prisoners increased from 98 in June 1986 to 515 in September 2011. In 2009 the most common term of sentence for women was one to three years, compared with two to three years for men.
Many women enter prison with a wide range of economic, social and health problems. A third of the women who serve prison sentences later return to jail, as opposed to half of men.