Incarcerated Aboriginal women’s experiences of accessing healthcare and the limitations of the ‘equal treatment’ principle [2020]

Background
Colonization continues in Australia, sustained through institutional and systemic racism. Targeted discrimination and intergenerational trauma have undermined the health and wellbeing of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population, leading to significantly poorer health status, social impoverishment and inequity resulting in the over-representation of Aboriginal people in Australian prisons. Despite adoption of the ‘equal treatment’ principle, on entering prison in Australia entitlements to the national universal healthcare system are revoked and Aboriginal people lose access to health services modelled on Aboriginal concepts of culturally safe healthcare available in the community. Incarcerated Aboriginal women experience poorer health outcomes than incarcerated non-Indigenous women and Aboriginal men, yet little is known about their experiences of accessing healthcare. We report the findings of the largest qualitative study with incarcerated Aboriginal women in New South Wales (NSW) Australia in over 15 years.

Methods
We employed a decolonizing research methodology, ‘community collaborative participatory action research’, involving consultation with Aboriginal communities prior to the study and establishment of a Project Advisory Group (PAG) of community expert Aboriginal women to guide the project. Forty-three semi-structured interviews were conducted in 2013 with Aboriginal women in urban and regional prisons in NSW. We applied a grounded theory approach for the data analysis with guidance from the PAG.

Results
Whilst Aboriginal women reported positive and negative experiences of prison healthcare, the custodial system created numerous barriers to accessing healthcare. Aboriginal women experienced institutional racism and discrimination in the form of not being listened to, stereotyping, and inequitable healthcare compared with non-Indigenous women in prison and the community.

Conclusions
‘Equal treatment’ is an inappropriate strategy for providing equitable healthcare, which is required because incarcerated Aboriginal women experience significantly poorer health. Taking a decolonizing approach, we unpack and demonstrate the systems level changes needed to make health and justice agencies culturally relevant and safe. This requires further acknowledgment of the oppressive transgenerational effects of ongoing colonial policy, a true embracing of diversity of worldviews, and critically the integration of Aboriginal concepts of health at all organizational levels to uphold Aboriginal women’s rights to culturally safe healthcare in prison and the community.

S. Kendall, S. Lighton, J. Sherwood, E. Baldry & E. A. Sullivan
International Journal for Equity in Health, volume 19, Article number: 48 (2020)
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