I was recently invited to take part in a radio panel discussion regarding women in UK prisons on Voice of Russia radio with Julie Bindel journalist and co-founder of Justice for Women, Erwin James Guardian Columnist having previously served 20 years of life sentence in Prison and Rob Preece from the Howard League for Penal Reform.
The debate was in response to the recent visit to the UK by psychologist Stephanie Covington who was speaking to prison staff regarding the particular problems we have in the UK of imprisoning women 8 out of 10 of which have not committed a violent offence. Covington believes that, in an ideal world there should be very few women in prison at all.
Women are far more likely to be sent to prison particularly for their first offence than men, are often punished more harshly as men profit from the “boys will be boys” and women are punished for being seen as deviant if they find themselves in the dock. I have long been aware of this issue since I was a University student in the early 1990’s and read the fantastic book ‘Eve was framed’ by Helena Kennedy QC, now Baroness Kennedy.
The situation has not improved since then and the figures beggar belief.
58% of women are serving sentences of 6 months or less which means they will not be able to participate in therapeutic programmes. Notwithstanding that almost 8 out of 10 women exhibit some type of psychological disturbance on admission and are 5 times more likely to have a mental health problem. The best that they can hope for is to be medicated which can then result in problems of addiction upon release.
The affects of even a short sentence on women can be devastating as it will often mean that their children will have to be taken into Local Authority care, often permanently and we know that this then means that children are more likely to suffer from psychological problems as a result.
Another problem is the small number of women’s prisons means that if they are able to see their children at all this can be very difficult on a practical level as the prison may be several hours travel from their local town so contact with family and friends is difficult.
1 in 3 women in custody have suffered sexual abuse and more than half from domestic violence. Half will have attempted to take their own lives at some point. We need to recognise therefore that many if not the majority are victims themselves and offer more therapeutic treatment and less custody.
As Julie Bindel pointed out when you consider the prevalence of a history of sexual and violent abuse by men against these women it is somewhat surprising that we still have so many male prison officers in women’s prisons.
Erwin Jones was of the view that prisons were designed for men and he was surprised when he learned that female prisoners were treated in the same way as male prisoners when the majority were not violent prisoners and were more likely to be victims themselves.
Unbelievably 48% of women in prison have committed offences to support someone else’s drug use – generally their partners. I have known many cases of women who were being physically and financially abused to the point where they did not have any money of their own and were forced to steal food and clothes for their children. I have even had client’s arrested for stealing tampons which is outrageous and a symptom of the abuse and absolute coercive control they are living with.
Shockingly women account for 31% of all self harm in prisons yet only make up 5% of the prison population. This is a situation that cannot possibly be tolerated any longer. The Corston report on women in prison by Baroness Corston in 2007 in response to the death of 6 young women in Styal Prison made 43 recommendations many of which have not yet been implemented and the number of women being sent to prison is increasing year on year.
I am not suggesting that women should not be prosecuted but there needs to be a realisation that women are often over arrested, over charged and over sentenced. We need to reserve prison for only the most violent women offenders and use far more therapeutic programmes in the community so that children do not have to go into care and women are not further brutalised by being incarcerated.
This is not to say that improvements in the treatment of male prisoners are not overdue – they are. However the devastating impact on the mental health of women – most of whom are already victims of abuse, most of whom have not committed a violent offence, almost half of whom have committed offences on behalf of others – is something which cannot be ignored by a just and fair society.