Mothers and Gestation in Custody
Between 1995 and 2002, there was a 58% increase in the imprisonment rate for women in Australia, in contrast to a 15% increase in the rate for men (ABS 2004). The majority of women in Australian prisons are aged between twenty and thirty-four years (ABS 2002), and an estimated 6% of women in prison are pregnant (Knight and Plugge, 2005). State surveys of prisoner health have shown that poor mental health, often combined with substance abuse, poor physical health due to chronic illness and infectious diseases, are highly prevalent among female prisoners compared with the general community (NSW 2001); (Qld 2002); (WA 2005).
Mothers and Gestation in Custody (MAGIC) is a two-year research project grant funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC). The study aims to investigate the impact of incarceration on the experience of pregnancy, and pregnancy outcomes. It will be the first study of its kind in Australia, and one of few to have taken place outside the United States.
The study is in two parts:
- a data linkage study, which will use data from a number of collections, to compare the pregnancy outcomes of women who have been incarcerated whilst pregnant in New South Wales, with a series of comparison groups; and
- a national, qualitative study in which in-depth interviews will be conducted with around sixty women across Australia who are, or have been in prison whilst pregnant. Interviews will also be conducted with prison officers and prison health care staff, to explore their views on the challenges and rewards involved in caring for pregnant inmates.
Through literature review, secondary linked data analysis and original fieldwork, the study will highlight the health care needs of some of Australia’s most marginalized citizens. It is hoped that this will contribute to better operational management of pregnancy in prisons, and increased collaboration between community and carceral health care services, to reflect the fluid nature of women’s involvement with the justice system.
The proportion of women in full-time detention in New South Wales prisons who are of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent increased from 14.6% in 1995 to 30.2% in 2007 (DCS NSW), and a similar increase has been observed in other states. A reference group has been established to advise on ethical, methodological, analytical and reporting issues with respect to the diversity of Aboriginal communities across Australia.
The study concluded in December 2009.
A/Prof Michael Levy is Director of Corrections Health in the Australian Capital Territory; a former Director of the Centre for Health Research in Criminal Justice NSW; and Conjoint Clinical Professor at the University of Sydney. He has over ten years’ experience as a public health physician in the field of prisoner health and human rights.
A/Prof Elizabeth Sullivan is Director of the Perinatal and Reproductive Epidemiology Research Unit at the University of New South Wales and has over fifteen years’ experience as a clinical Epidemiologist in the field of perinatal and public health.