When Jessica Hill saw the ‘ladies in pink’ in a Fijian prison, she feared the worst. Instead, she gained forgiveness and a passion for fashion

In prisons around the world, more and more women and girls are doing time. 

There are more than 700,000 female prisoners globally – a figure that increased by 100,000 in the last decade alone.

That was despite the UN adopting the Bangkok Rules in 2010, which called on policy makers, legislators and judges to make systemic reforms to address the “unnecessary imprisonment of women”.

It argued that a large number of women are imprisoned due to “multiple layers” of discrimination and deprivation, and their crimes tend to be non-violent in nature.

Behind bars in the Pacific

Currently, women make up a small percentage of those imprisoned across the Pacific, from 2 per cent in Solomon Islands to 6 per cent in Samoa, 5 per cent in Tonga and 3 per cent in Fiji and Vanuatu.

This is low compared to Australia, where the rate is 8 per cent and growing fast, particularly among First Nations women.

But over the past two decades, the rate of female incarceration has increased at a rate more than double their male counterparts and it is playing out similarly in the Pacific. 

A woman wearing a blue blouse smiling
Ms Hill said it took three years to accept she was in prison. (Supplied: Jessica Hill)

In May 2013, then 26-year-old accountant Jessica Hill got behind the wheel of a car, intoxicated.

While driving in Nasinu — on the island of Viti Levu in Fiji — she veered into the path of an oncoming car driven by a Fijian woman visiting from Queensland. 

She died as a result of the collision and Ms Hill was sentenced to seven years in jail.

“I thought, ‘Oh, this is the end of the road for me’,” she said.

‘Yes, I made a mistake’

It took time for Ms Hill to process what had happened. 

“It was really hard for me because I didn’t accept that I was incarcerated. It took me a while, almost three years,” she said.

“I went through programs like anger management, alcohol, drug and substance abuse, trauma healing.

“There was a course that I took called Problem Solving Therapy and that make me accept that, ‘Yes, I made a mistake. Yes, I’m here.’ And then, from there onwards, I was OK.”

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Ms Hill served five-and-a-half years of a seven-year sentence with the remainder of her parole period served in the community.

But it was inside that she discovered her passion for fashion design, using it to move forward with her life.

Her work has since been showcased during Fijian Fashion Week.

“When I look back, I wish I could change the decisions that I made. But I can’t,” she said.

Prison kids

In Papua New Guinea today, there are roughly 5,000 people in prison — 5 per cent of those are women.

Over the years, Carolyn Raga has made a habit of visiting Papua New Guinean women in prison to run prison ministry and sing.

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What’s special about her visits is she takes her children with her.

But her visits were tinged with sadness.

“When I took my kids in, there were mothers sitting down and, as soon as they saw my kids, they were in tears,” she said.

“After the service, they said, ‘Sorry, we left our kids when they were like this [age]. And we don’t know how big are now.’

Crimes ‘gender-based violence’ related

PNG Journalist Deborah Pranis produced a documentary in 2018 to shine a spotlight on the issues affecting women behind bars.

On her second visit to Bomana Detention Centre in Port Moresby, Ms Pranis was struck by the number of babies she met.

“At that time, there [were] about three to four kids in there with their mothers,” she said.

“They were supposed to be there until the age of four. I think they’re allowed to come out once they are not breastfed anymore.

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