Women in prison

// 1 May 2008

I’m just at the beginning of reading 13 Women: Parables from Prison, based on interviews with, as the title suggests, 13 women in the US prison system, which I picked up here. I’m too close to the beginning to offer any real thoughts about the book, but this post giving a personal reaction to the situation, over at Think Girl seems as good a reason as any to mention it:

Being the daughter of a correction officer of a women’s prison, I’ve heard plenty of stories how officers blatantly disrespect and mistreat women prisoners. Bitches and hoes are just two of the numerous derogatory words that these women are called. I’ve never been incarcerated but, I’m quite sure that if I was I would feel tremendously low. If almost on a daily basis I was spoken to in a pejorative manner, I know for sure that I would feel even worse.

Sure, these women are criminals but, they are still human.

Both the book and the post are about the situation in the US, where the majority of women in prison were locked up for non-violent offences. Needless to say, the situation in the UK is not so different as all that, as this Q&A at The Guardian shows:

How do women fare in prison?

Not well at all. Labour peer Baroness Corston’s review of the way women offenders are handled by the criminal justice system, published today, was triggered by the deaths of six women at Styal prison, Cheshire, between August 2002 and 2003. Last year, three women took their own lives in prisons, following four in 2005 and 13 in 2004. To date in 2007 there have been two apparent self-inflicted deaths of women prisoners. In addition, the Prison Reform Trust said 40% of women prisoners have attempted suicide at some time. Campaigners say many would be better off receiving treatment and support to stop them reoffending.

Why so many problems?

Katherine Rake, director of the Fawcett Society, said many women in prison are highly vulnerable and prison does them little good. The Prison Service says most have experienced domestic violence or have been victims of childhood abuse, 80% have diagnosable mental health problems. Drugs are also a big problem: Mandy Ogunmokun, a drugs worker at HMP Holloway in London, said about 70% of the women who come there are drug addicts. In 2004, 36% of sentenced women had committed drugs offences.

In addition, the majority of women who are jailed are mothers and a third have a child under five. Separation from family and isolation can be stressful and make a long sentence feel even longer. To make matters worse, the small number of women’s prisons means they are far more likely to be held a long way from their families.

Also check out the charity Women in Prison for more info.

Photo by Tierecke, shared under a Creative Commons license

Comments From You

Shea // Posted 1 May 2008 at 7:22 pm

I don’t think the vast majority of women should be in prison at all (didn’t someone in govt recently call for this to take place anyway?). They commit predominantly property crimes and the social cost of locking them up (social care for their children, the psychological impact of prison on them and on their children) is huge compared to any meagre benefit in recidivism rates. I think alot of them time community orders and drug treatment would be far more effective. We re really punishing these women for coming from a lousy family & socio economic background and no civlised society can condone that.

In the wider context I don’t think that prison works for either men or women, except for the most violent and dangerous sexual predators and then only to keep them away from us. I remember reading about an open prison in Germany where the class B inmates could come and go at ease and where they actually learned valuable skills such as engineering to help them when their prison term ended. There was also the case that unlike here, only a judge could authorise an extension to their sentence for misbehaviour. Their recidivism rate was something like 8% compared to the normal 80 or 90% here.

There are also some serious criticisms to be made of the move of private companies like Group 4 into the prison system. If you get paid per prisoner, isn’t there at best a serious conflict of interest in how far you will go to keep them out of prison and prevent re-offending? (In a lot of cases public prisons authorities have been prevented from puttting in a tender to run their own prisons in order to prejudice it in favour of the private sector.)

Grace // Posted 2 May 2008 at 10:37 am

This is a subject that is very close to my heart as I work in the Criminal Justice System and frequently read papers on the prison population. The Corston Report was particularly important to me however very little has been done about it.

One of the major problems for women in UK prisons is that because there are so few women’s prisons, the inmates are much more likely to be far away from home, making it very difficult for families to visit them – more so than with male prisoners. There are no women’s prisons in Wales for instance.

The numbers of women in prison who have comorbid mental health and drug use problems are staggering and a large number of women in prison who are not UK nationals are there because they have been used as drug mules.

Shea is right – the vast majority of women in prison are not there for violent offences. Women are also much more likely to be imprisoned for a first offence than men who have committed the same offences. As these offences are likely to be ‘minor’ they are in prison for less than 12 months. This means they have no statutory aftercare when released and are very unlikely to have enough time inside to have access to services and/or courses that will help them with their offending lifestyles. Meanwhile they have very likely lost their job, their home and their children – a state that will immediately increase their likelihood of worsened mental health and drug use, as well as reactive offending.

Ooh, sorry. Rant over!

Ginger // Posted 2 May 2008 at 10:58 pm

The reports from the Quaker United Nations Office on the needs of women in prisons around the world and their current situation may be interesting to some:


kirsty gaskell // Posted 28 January 2010 at 11:40 pm

I would like to say whilst there have been a number of deaths at styal prison that could easily have been avoided that most officers and nurses there do what they can 2 help prisoners. I myself got on with most of the officers and found they treted me with a lot of compassion and respect. They helped me with everything from starting an education course to referring me 2 a counseller 2 deal with my self esteem and deppresive mood swings and anger issues. I would like 2 personally thank the officers on waite wing for finding the time 2 help me in such a humane and considerate manner. I would also like 2 thank the officers on waite wing 4 making me realise i can make a better future for myself and move on from my difficult and abuse i suffered in childhood. I am now staying out of trouble and am starting on the princes trust course on the 1st feb. A few friends of mine and also other prisoners i did not know tried 2 commit suicide and the officers were vigilant and saved them all and put them in touch with people within the prison community that can help them.I hope that there will be no more deaths in styal, although i know the officers and nurses will do their best 2 save these womens lives.

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