Women's 'secure estate': Does the punishment fit the crime ?

Incarceration is emblematic of women’s confined and marginalised position in society. Reducing women’s imprisonment in the UK is a social justice imperative, says Jenny Earle

Jenny Earle
6 November 2013

In most areas of feminist activity, whether we are talking about political power and participation, employment and jobs, or science and technology, we are trying to increase women’s representation. The issue of women in prison is anomalous as we are trying to decrease rather than increase women’s representation – and given that women are only 5% of the total prison population this can take some explaining. 

Incarceration has been on the feminist agenda since the early days   - not just because of the brutal disciplining of the suffragettes or the work of nineteenth century prison reformer Elizabeth Fry (featured on the £5 note) – but because incarceration is emblematic of women’s confined and marginalised position in society. Behind prison bars there is a concentration of women dealing with the consequences of sexual abuse, domestic violence, neglect, subordination, grief and loss, poverty and debt, racism and … it’s downhill all the way from stereotypes of femininity and maternal virtue which is what many are guilty of offending against. Women are then doubly stigmatised for their deviance, finding it even harder than men to get jobs with a criminal and prison record. And the fact that, for some women, prison can provide a kind of respite, with access to health, care and support services that they can’t get in the community, is a sure sign that society is failing some women badly. 

Reducing women’s incarceration is not just a criminal justice issue. It involves tackling the everyday violence, disadvantages and double standards that women face and intensifying efforts to increase women’s autonomy, opportunities, and dignity. This was made abundantly clear in a panel discussion at the recent Feminism in London conference.. London is of course the right place to be talking about women’s incarceration, as it is home to HMP Holloway, the largest women’s prison in Western Europe – with a capacity of nearly 600 women, currently holding about 450 women, of whom 45% are from black or ethnic minority groups.

The minority status and powerlessness of women in prison allows them to be marginalised, invisible to and overlooked by government and politicians. It took the suicides of 6 women in Styal prison in 2005 to prompt a comprehensive government inquiry. Published in 2007 the Corston review became the rallying point, a manifesto for change, making the case eloquently and comprehensively for a different approach, and especially for a radical reduction in the use of imprisonment.

Most women who are in prison come from a background of economic and social deprivation, drug dependency, mental health problems and violence.  Many have been victims of much more serious crimes than the ones they are accused of committing. Reading the statistics and hearing women’s stories, there is no doubt that abusive relationships are a key factor in much of women’s offending. Nearly half of women surveyed for a longitudinal study reported having committed offences to support someone else’s drug use (compared to 22% of men). This is not to deny women’s agency or to suggest that all women are innocent, but we have to understand what gets women into trouble and ask whether prison is a proportionate or effective penalty for the offences they commit. 

During a discussion at the recent Feminism in London conference, one speaker spoke movingly about her own traumatic experiences, and how time in care as a child can be a stepping stone to custody; as Rachel Halford, director of Women in Prison, said “maybe it’s not the fish, it’s the water”. Women are much more of a risk to themselves than to the public (women are ten times more likely than men to harm themselves in prison) but are mostly kept in high security prison environments.  And of the foreign national women in prison, research has established that a significant proportion may have been trafficked and coerced into offending (the most recent Holloway inspection found over a quarter of women there were foreign nationals). About two thirds of women in prison are mothers of dependent children, a third are single parents. For most of the 17,000 children separated by their mothers from imprisonment every year, it’s the first time they’ve been separated for more than a day or so.

There is no shortage of inquiries and reports on these issues in the UK, and no lack of unanimity in their recommendations - that custodial sentences should be reserved for serious and violent offenders who pose a threat to the public (a very small minority of the women who are sent to prison), and that a national network of women-specific services should be funded to provide women with the support they need.  Last year the Justice Committee criticised the Government for lack of progress and again emphasised that “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.”

Last month, the British Government released its response to the Justice Committee’s report and its proposals for the ‘women’s secure estate’. These include the eventual closure of two women’s prisons and a commitment to improving employment opportunities and resettlement services for women in prison. But to focus on remodelling prisons is to miss the point when we know that most of the solutions to women’s offending lie outside prison walls.

So, the Prison Reform Trust’s programme to reduce women’s imprisonment still has much work to do. We have formed a partnership with the UK organisation of Soroptimists International – a UN accredited organisation committed to building a better world for women and girls, and they are gathering information through their clubs about what happens to women locally who get into trouble with the law, which will be published next year.  To support this work we have published a briefing Why Focus on Women’s Imprisonment.

Meanwhile, sustained pressure for statutory underpinning for women’s services has resulted in a ‘women’s amendment’ to the Offender Rehabilitation Bill, reminding the Secretary of State for Justice that he must comply with the gender equality duty (clause 11). This is welcome. But the Bill, back in the House of Commons next week, has frightening implications for women’s incarceration – it will introduce a minimum of 12 months supervision for everyone leaving prison, however long they have served. This will have a particular impact on women, given that most are imprisoned for very short periods (6 months or less). The government describes it as support, but it is in effect an extension of sentence, because if a woman breaches the terms of her supervision regime she may end up back in prison. Already about 10% of women in prison are there for breaching a court order. There is also a risk that the promise of 12 months post-custody “support” will encourage magistrates to send more women to prison and reinforce the tendency of some to regard prison as a gateway to support. And this is in the context of the marketisation and privatisation of probation services, in which the fate and funding of women’s community services are very uncertain.

Equality does not mean treating women and men the same, but does require that women should have access to women-only, women-specific services. The solutions to women’s offending do not lie behind bars but in better access to health services and safe housing, in education and employment, in non-abusive relationships and help with debt and substance misuse. We know from our work that this makes sense, and we know that despite the hard line rhetoric of politicians and the tabloid press, there is considerable public support for more humane and constructive responses to women offenders.

This article stems from the author's contribution to a panel discussion on women's incarceration held at the recent Feminism in London conference.

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