The face of female imprisonment

July 30, 2008 at 12:20 pm | Posted in Feminisms, Prison Reform | 1 Comment

After Sarah Campbell, aged 18, died from taking an overdose of sleeping pills in Styal prison – one of six women to die in that jail in 12 months – her mother vowed to fight against the harm done to vulnerable young women by the penal system. In the years that followed, Pauline Campbell tried to raise the profile of this issue by travelling the country and protesting outside an prison where a woman had died in custody. Tragically, just over two months ago she was found dead near her daughter’s grave, robbing the reform movement of one its most tireless, effective and high-profile voices. Of course, the fact you’ve probably never heard of her shows just pitifully low a profile this cause has.

The plight of women in our prisons makes grimacing reading. According to campaign group Women in Prison, of the 4,400+ currently in prison:

  • 70% have mental health problems.
  • 37% have attempted suicide.
  • 20% have been in the care system as children compared to 2% of the general population.
  • At least 50% report being victims of childhood abuse or domestic violence.

It’s a wretched state of affairs, made worse by the fact that so many don’t really need to be there. In 2004, the Prison Reform Trust reported that six out of ten women imprisoned while awaiting trial are subsequently acquitted or given a non-custodial sentence. Furthermore, the number of women being remanded into custody has more than trebled in a decade despite the fact that more than three quarters are charged with non-violent or minor offences. Few among the number of women prisoners pose a serious risk to society. As for the tired old question of whether any good comes out of their time in prison, Women in Prison also report that 65% go on to reoffend.

But statistics rarely reveal the full misery of life in prison, and so when this email appeared in my inbox promoting a book on the subject, I felt obliged to give it a plug:

Maggots in My Sweet Potatoes: Women Doing Time is the product of a 10-year quest by Susan Madden Lankford to reveal the personal despair, desperation, alienation, and fragile hopes of women behind bars. Lankford’s dramatic photos and vivid stories of life behind the concrete and steel facilities reveal an overcrowded, strained incarceration system increasingly unable to deal with the mental, emotional, and addiction problems women bring with them behind bars.


Her flesh- and-blood images of life behind the concrete and steel facilities that house these women present us with a cogent portrait of diffused lives, and a reflective glimpse of emotional and physical institutionalization. We hear not only the frank and graphic voices of both the jailed and the jailers, but also from rehabilitation counselors, attorneys, judges, medical professionals and psychiatrists. Their experiences and insights into the fastest growing segment of the U.S. prison population give new meaning to the slogan “No Child Left Behind.”

The book specifically looks at the lives of women in U.S. prisons, but when you read some of the material and look at the statistics, on this issue – as with many others – we share much more than just the same language. Let’s see if any of this sounds familiar:

  • In the past 10 years, the number of female prisoners has increased 138 percent. This is speculated to be from harsher mandatory sentencing laws, and increased arrest rates due to the “war on crime” and “war on drugs.”
  • Women prisoners spend on average 17 hours a day in their cells, with one hour outside for exercise. Compare to men prisoners, who spend, on average, 15 hours a day in their cells, with 1.5 hours outside.
  • Nationally, more than 200,000 children have mothers in prison, and 64 percent of incarcerated women have minor children.
  • Every single women’s facility in the U.S. is at least 160 percent above capacity, and on average 57 percent of women in State prisons claim physical or sexual abuse prior to incarceration.

Eerily, depressingly similar. You’ll find a fairly comprehensive overview of the injustices in the US prison system in this PDF by Amnesty, but if you want a set of vivid snapshots of life inside the system, this isn’t a a bad place to start.

More info here and here.

Some of my other posts on penal reform (or lack of it) can be found here.


1 Comment »

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  1. Thank you for the kind reference to my book.


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