Most women in prison in Britain have experienced sexual or domestic violence, yet the system fails to address their needs and further victimises them. For some, it is the end of the road.
Over half of women in prison have experienced domestic violence, 53% have experienced childhood abuse, and more than a third have been the victim of sexual abuse. But with the prison system geared towards the fact 95% of prisoners are men, and 81% of women are imprisoned for non-violent offences, the system is failing the most vulnerable, and trapping half of women into reoffending.
In July 2013, the Justice Committee delivered its opinion on the governments probation reforms and pointed out one damning oversight: the changes to the justice system had been designed purely with men in mind and women in prison had been ‘ignored’.
Helen Grant MP, Secretary of State for Justice, Women and Equalities, acknowledged that women offenders are a “highly vulnerable group” who often commit crime because of their vulnerability, for example, as a result of domestic violence, sexual abuse and mental health problems, and because of earlier failures to protect and support them, and that they are more likely to be primary carers when sentenced.
Across Britain, 3,959 women are currently in prison, compared to 81,905 men. Making up only 5% of the detained population at any one time, women’s needs in prison, and their rehabilitation and life chances on release are routinely treated as an afterthought. Responding to a Ministry of Justice green paper on women’s experience of prison, a survey conducted by charity Women In Prison found former inmates listed a lack of police response to domestic violence incidents, and dismissal of sexual exploitation as major barriers to women’s rehabilitation.
Though most women are in prison for non-violent offences on short sentences, the small provision of women only provision means that whereas men’s prisons have various categories and group offenders together in terms of severity of crime and sentence length, women end up in the same facilities that are barely suitable for differing needs.
For women who give birth in prison, the choice over whether or not to have their baby with them is an important one: many women choose to have their baby looked after by family or social services, but equally removing the right to bond with a child due to financial constraints is particularly cruel. Pregnancy in prison is often dangerous for a variety of reasons: many women are drug users when they enter, violence is an issue from other prisoners and guards, and access to medical care is limited. In 2008, Johann Lamont came under fire after it was revealed prisoners in some institutions in Scotland were still double-cuffed during labour, a practice that has mostly been stopped in England and Wales. While pregnancy and birth rates are recorded in prison, miscarriage rates are not: this is mainly due to Public Health England not collecting any statistics on miscarriages across the country. It does, however, mean we know little about how many women in prison miscarry, or the conditions that cause them to do so.
A 2012 report into conditions in New Hall prison, Wakefield also raised concerns about unnecessary force used against women prisoners by guards stating ’there had been no justification for the use of force and there was a lack of managerial scrutiny relating to the issue’. The report also admitted women ‘were routinely placed in strip clothing when they were being relocated to the special cell and too many had their clothes cut off when forcibly searched’. Even in prison, the women at New Hall found it impossible to escape male violence and harassment: ‘Women sometimes travelled with male prisoners and some complained that they had been harassed’, the report states, adding that the mother and baby unit was ‘supervised by a lone male member of staff, which was inappropriate.’
The social toll on women is also harder than for men. Women are on average held 62 miles away from their home, as there are fewer prisons in total, which adds further logistical difficulties to visiting arrangements. In Wales currently, there are no women’s prisons, so any Welsh female prisoners are detained in England, several hours away. Barnardos point out that for the 200,000 children in the United Kingdom with a parent in prison, the social and psychological effects are devastating: they are twice as likely to experience mental health problems, and three times as likely to be involved in offending activity as other children their age.
Prisoners families tend to be financially, as well as socially excluded, so the prohibitive cost in visiting women in prison lessens the chance and rate with which women receive visitors. The average monthly cost of retaining face to face contact with a prisoner was estimated at £6,200 over a 6 month period, the average women’s sentence. For many, this outlay is completely out of reach, which in turn has a knock on effect for prisoners’ chances of rehabilitation: regular visits and contact with families in prison reduces re-offending rates by up to 39%.
Two open women’s prisons, Askham Grange in Yorkshire and East Sutton Park in Kent, are earmarked for closure by the Ministry of Justice, and the Holloway prison mother and baby unit is facing closure due to ‘under-occupancy’. The Ministry of Justice claimed the decision to close the open prisons was in order to allow women to relocate closer to their homes resulting in ‘small average reduction in distance’ between women and their families. Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform countered that this was spin – shrinking the number of women’s prisons meant more women would be moved further away from their homes, because there are even fewer prisons that can accommodate them. The open prisons were also successfully integrating incarcerated women back into communities: open women’s prisons are a rarity despite the non-violent nature of most women’s crimes, and the women in the two open prisons are now being moved to higher security prisons with fewer social rehabilitation facilties. Similarly, the closure of the Holloway mother and baby unit forces pregnant prisoners to choose between relocating to one of the remaining prisons with a mother and baby unit, in Cheshire or the Welsh Borders, or separating from their baby at birth and staying closer to their family.
Aside from the financial burden of travelling and maintaining contact, women often find themselves more isolated than male prisoners for social reasons. The stigma associated with female offending is far higher than for men, and women entering prison often find their family support networks melt away, whereas male offenders have families rally around them, and visit regularly.
Part of this is also to do with the nature of the crimes women are interned for: of prisoners surveyed by the Ministry of Justice in 2012, 68% of women said they had been using drugs at the time the offence was committed, and 48% said the crime they’d been convicted of had been carried out to support the drug use of somebody else, compared to only a fifth of male prisoners. Half of women who injected class A drugs on admission to prison reported being initiated into doing so by their partner. With 50% of women in prison reporting domestic violence and a third experiencing sexual abuse before conviction, coercion through violence and control is a major factor in the crimes women are imprisoned for. As one ex-inmate succinctly put it in a Women in Prison report ‘Men use women to commit crimes and women are usually the victims’. The Chief Inspector of HM Prisons added in a 2004 report that this figure could be far higher as interviews revealed ‘women did not class some considerably violent acts as abuse’.
The far higher rate of drugs related offences amongst the female prison population has raised concern for decades on the role of detainment in rehabilitation. Drug use in prison is still rife, so the impetus and opportunity for women to ‘get clean’ is low, and the environment isn’t conducive to any improvement in mental health. Female prisoners reported far higher rates of depression, self harm, attempted suicide and trauma symptoms, and analysis found high levels of childhood sexual abuse and violence.
Most drugs related offences such as shoplifting and non-violent theft, could be treated with community sentences and drug rehabilitation for far less fiscal cost for all involved. The Corston report unequivocally stated ‘prison is an expensive and ineffective way of dealing with many women offenders who do not pose a significant risk of harm to public safety’. The chances of re-offending with community sentences is considerably lower, and risk of homelessness.
Of particular concern is the policing and criminalisation of sexually exploited young women and girls. The Howard League for Penal Reform raised concerns that rather than identifying victims of abuse and exploitation, the police were arresting and prosecuting women, and girls over the age of criminal responsibility. Despite inquiries proving the rise in sexual exploitation in many UK cities, fewer than 400 people were charged with abuse of a child through sexual exploitation.
The Department of Health and the Home Office released a joint report in 2000, Safeguarding Children Involved in Prostitution which recommended in the first instance that children are not prosecuted for soliciting or loitering for the purposes of prostitution. A 2009 report, Safeguarding Children and Young People from Sexual Exploitation notes that a child over the age of ten can be prosecuted for various prostitution related offences. The Howard League are concerned that for many women and girls, police attitudes towards vulnerable people and a refusal to acknowledge coercion means that exploited individuals end up in prison, rather than having their abusers properly investigated and sentenced.
The benefits of moving away from carceral penalties for women’s crimes are unequivocal: re-offending rates are drastically decreased, rehabilitation is improved and social stigma reduced, and options that don’t involve detention are far, far cheaper both in the short term and the long run. Women are unnecessarily detained, when domestic violence and rape services, and drug rehabilitation services could stop offending at an early stage. Cutting these services, and failing to address police dismissal of violence against women means more women are pushed into prison, and failed. ‘In our view there is general agreement that the majority of women offenders pose little risk to public safety and that imprisonment is frequently an ineffective response’, the report concludes. Accepting that women offend because they are the victims of violence, and have already been failed by state support networks when they reach the courts, means we must treat women’s offending differently, if there is any chance of ending the cycle of violence these women are trapped within.
Read more articles in 50.50's series on 16 Days: Activism Against Gender-Based Violence 2014