Aboriginal women incarcerated in NSW, who often battle drug, alcohol and mental health problems triggered by the pitfalls of colonisation, may see their trauma echo in the next generation, new research warns.
About 160 Aboriginal mothers were interviewed in NSW and WA prisons by a research team, headed up by the University of Newcastle's Elizabeth Sullivan, in a bid to understand the health of the group.
Of the NSW mothers; 83 per cent were locked up for drug-related offences and more than half reported alcohol as a problem in their past.
Frequent brushes with the law were also common; 71 per cent had served time in prison before and a quarter of the women had been in juvenile detention.
Almost a third of the inmates had been pregnant while in prison and 38 per cent of those women gave birth behind bars in NSW.
Illicit drug use was reported by 96 per cent of incarcerated NSW mums and 84 per cent had injected drugs.
But the study, released on Thursday in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, went beyond statistics to create a "snapshot" of health and distress for the mums in lock-ups.
"Aboriginal mothers in NSW were characterised by significantly high levels of self-reported distress, and poor mental health status and high levels of mental health diagnoses," the paper says.
NSW mums had poorer health and higher mental distress than their WA counterparts.
Risk factors including low education, unemployment, cyclic contact with prisons, drugs and alcohol run across most prison demographics and, true to form, were identified in the study.
But the researchers found factors unique to the female Aboriginal cohort as well; cultural and family dislocation in the centuries following Australia's colonisation.
"Almost 60 per cent of Aboriginal mothers in NSW were separated from their family as children," the paper says.
The researchers believe their findings reinforce a long-discussed link between the stolen generation and imprisonment.
"Aboriginal people removed from their families as children of the stolen generation are significantly more likely to have been subjected to childhood sexual assault, to have attempted suicide and be imprisoned on more than five previous occasions," the paper says, citing older studies.
The latest study warns the incarceration of mothers from stolen generation families can "perpetuate further intergenerational trauma" as their children, too, grow up in fractured families.
"Children who experience maternal incarceration are significantly more likely to be placed in care and experience poor health outcomes compared to children of mothers with no history of incarceration," the study says.
The mothers' troubled "histories", shaped by the discriminatory policies of the 20th century and systemic disadvantage, are passed on through incarceration, it concludes.
The study found differences in drug and family patterns between the two states and called for regionally tailored programs to help women cope with substance abuse before they reach prison.
Education and employment for Aboriginal mothers could also have benefits to their health, researchers said.