Women’s prisons: a system crying out for change

May 17, 2009 at 7:07 pm | Posted in British Politics, Prison Reform | 1 Comment


As some of you might remember, a few months ago I wrote a post on prison policy which mentioned the short, troubled life and eventual suicide of Sarah Campbell. What I neglected to mention in that post was that whilst her death was a preventable tragedy, the greater outrage for prison reformers was that it was just one of six suicides to occur at Styal prison in the space of 12 months.

Spooked by the amount of self-harm among women prisoners, the government commissioned Baroness Jean Corston to conduct a review and suggest ways that our criminal justice system might be changed to stop creating more casualties.

For Corston, the fundamental flaw with the penal system is that it was designed by and for men. At the time, this might’ve seemed perfectly logical; even today, women only make up about 5% of the total prison population, so when you’re designing a system to house inmates, your planning is inevitably skewed towards men. But the women in prison often possess very different needs and vulnerabilities: they’re more likely to have been the victims of domestic or sexual abuse, are more likely to be lone parents and are more likely to self-harm.

Corston concluded that today’s prisons are systemically incapable of providing the kinds of help these women need and that all 15 jails should be phased-out within 10 years. In their place should be a series of smaller custodial units which would be closer to an inmate’s home and better equipped to help them with any drug or alcohol addictions, mental or physical health problems they may be harbouring.

But Corston went far further than simply asking for a radical change in the way we incarcerate female offenders; she also critiqued the frequency with which the criminal justice system resorts to imprisonment. The majority of the women in our prisons serve short sentences for non-violent, acquisitive crime; as they pose no danger to the law-abiding majority, there really isn’t any need to lock them up, particularly since nothing positive seems to come out of it. So for those women whose crimes were relatively minor, Corston argued that there should be a greater breadth of non-custodial sentences aimed at offenders repaying their debt to society in a more productive manner.

When it was published, the government was reasonably receptive and promised to look at ways of reducing the female prison population. But a little over two years since the Baroness’ call for change, the Fawcett Society has looked again at the circumstances for women in the criminal justice system and there’s little evidence of substantive change.

At present, the number of women in prison is a little over 4,200 – a 60% increase on ten years ago. Of that number, more than half have been victims of domestic violence in their lives, a third have suffered sexual abuse and a quarter were in care as children. 63% of these inmates serve a fruitless, pointless sentence of 6 months or less, two thirds are mothers of dependent children and 18,000 of those children are separated from their mums each year. Most startlingly, women make up just 5% of the total prison population, but commit half of the total number of incidents of self-harm.

Prison isn’t working. It isn’t working for the inmates or their familes, it’s not working for the victims of crime, it’s not working for a government which is meant to be reducing crime and it’s not working for the taxpayers who have to shell out every year for policies which yield few results. In any other area of governing, seeing the public’s money being wasted in such a way would make the major parties desperate to find alternatives. In the Corston report, we already have an alternative to the self-defeating status quo; all we need now is a government with the political bravery needed to make it a reality. Any takers?


1 Comment »

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  1. YAA Adding this to my bookmarks. Thank You

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