No prison for young mums?

// 29 October 2008

The conditions in prison may no longer be Dickensian but young mothers are still going to jail for the same reasons they were in Victorian times: poverty, debt, addiction and mental illness.

In yesterday’s Guardian, Juliet Lyon set out the case for moving many women out of the prison system.

The most illuminating parts of this article are the quotes from young mothers in jail, from a Prison Reform Trust report. For example:

If there was a place between a prison and a home – but not a hostel – somewhere where people could help and teach you real things so you can live and not have your baby taken away. It might help stop girls doing drugs or stealing or whatever. Somewhere that was clean and like a home. I would like that.

Why are so many women – including pregnant women and new mothers – in prison?

As the government’s Corston review found last year, many of these women are damaged individuals who pose no risk to the public. Over a third of women in prison have no previous convictions – more than double the figure for men. The review confirmed what anyone who’s been inside a women’s prison will tell you, many women prisoners become trapped in a cycle of deprivation, domestic violence, drug abuse and crime that the prison system is failing to break. The Ministry of Justice has to come to terms with the inconvenient truth that most women in prison have been both perpetrators and victims of crime.

Sidenote: Last month, This American Life reported on an extremely affecting story of one young woman who got herself locked up in prison so she could be with her mother – who is serving a long sentence.

Comments From You

Tony Moll // Posted 29 October 2008 at 5:06 pm

So do you want equality or not? Or do you get to pick and choose?

If a woman commits a crime she should treated the same way as a man who commits the exact same crime.

nick // Posted 30 October 2008 at 9:02 am

I agree that jailing pregnant women is wrong. It serves no purpose for the mother or newborn child. There has to be a better way of dealing with these women.

But ….I do find it hard to understand

equality , when people say dont jail women for petty crimes …but its ok

to jail men for the same crimes ….

surely equality means being treated the same … F word advocates ….

so why jail men but not women for the same crimes ?

Yes, men are to blame for most crimes

committed in the UK …violent and non violent ……so male prison population

is higher than female ….but only

reducing the female prison population

is not the answer …..we have to

reduce the prison population full stop.

Society has to look and ask why are people committing these crimes ?

How can they be stopped ?

What’s the underlying problems these people have to make them commit crime ?

answer these questions ….then we’ll

be getting somewhere

Jess McCabe // Posted 30 October 2008 at 9:25 am

Nick – The F Word is not advocating anything specific – neither, indeed, am I.

I’m not sure what the answer is, but maybe jail isn’t it in many many cases. It’s not like the Prison Reform Trust think pregnant women should not be treated fairly when they commit crimes, but they’re advocating a different sort of response than throwing them in prison.

I guess it’s important to consider that the current system involves punishing not only the parent, but the child too.

I agree with you on focusing attention on the ‘reasons’ for crime, of course.

Shea // Posted 30 October 2008 at 10:53 am

@ Tony Moll– yes we want equality, but that doesn’t mean the same. On other posts here you have made points about the biological differences between men and women, usually where that gives men an advantage e.g greater physical strength or supposedly higher libido (as a justification for lapdancing). Here there is a biological difference that gives women an advantage- they are the only ones who can carry and give birth to children and feed the child with their bodies. So it makes sense for the mother and child not to be separated, (see separation anxiety in any Psychology Journal) and to be in the healthiest environment possible— that isn’t prison.

@ Nick– no none is suggesting women get off scott free and actually on other posts I, along with others have made the point that we put too many people in Jail full stop. Prison doesn’t work either in rehabilitating or preventing crimes, in fact there is a substantive body of evidence that suggests the opposite.

But in the case of women, for the reasons cited above and the fact that women are four times more likely to be incarcerated for a first time, petty offence than men, (such as shoplifting or non payment of fines) and crucially for a non-violent offence then there is very little logic in imprisoning these women. Further more (and yes this is also true of men in the prison system), the vast majority of female prisoners have a history of abuse, neglect and self harm as well as drug use. Putting them in prison further reduces their paltry life chances and therefore impacts on the life chances of any children they have (characteristically the fathers will be no where to be found).

From the social perspective it is extremely damaging and from an economic perspective it is likewise. It cost an enormous amount to put people in prison full stop, it costs more to put women with children in prison because their children will then have to be taken into care, (funded by the state) and dealt with by the courts and social workers etc. Any job, accomodation or benefits the woman had will also be lost putting her in a far worse position when she gets out of prison (and making it more likely she will re-offend). Then there is the human cost of separating a child from its mother or having it join her in prison (eseentially incarcerating an innocent child also). But this is very rarely an option. There are very few women’s prisons and they are scattered across the country, it is frequently the case that women end up hundreds of miles away from their families or children, compounding the misery and injustice.

Ultimately it turns on what you think the prison system should eixts for. If its retribution then you might agree with the above although of course no reparation is made to the victims, if its rehabilitation then you must find the above scenarios horrendous and unpragmatic.

Sabre // Posted 30 October 2008 at 11:25 am

I guess this goes back to the debate on whether prison should be about punishment or rehabilitation to get people ‘fit for society’. Surely as our prisons are overcrowded, secure halfway houses (or similar) would be better for those women and men who have officially committed a crime but are not actually a danger to people.

And while in theory I agree that men and women should be treated alike, women do generally bear more responsibility for children so until THAT situation is equal I would support having different measures for women in the criminal justice system, recognising the greater impact on families when the mother/main female carer is jailed.

Sarah // Posted 30 October 2008 at 11:47 am

“Tony Moll said:

So do you want equality or not? Or do you get to pick and choose?

If a woman commits a crime she should treated the same way as a man who commits the exact same crime. ”

The legal system is a little more complicated than that. We can’t treat different people exactly the same, because no two people, or two situations, are ever exactly the same. Sentencing is done on a case-by-case basis, and many factors are taken into account, including things like mental illness, motivation for the crime, any degree of coercion, attitude, previous convictions, how much of a danger to society the person is judged to be, how likely they are to reoffend, and any particular circumstances that might have affected the person’s actions or thinking. It is rarely (if ever) as simple as automatically assigning a particular sentence for a particular action with no other considerations. If it was, the judges and barristers would have a very easy job!

These factors are different for everyone, and there may well be general trends that mean women are less likely than men to ‘need’ to be imprisoned. When children are involved, that also needs to be taken into account (it seems to me a good idea to at least look at alternative options to having babies in prisons, or taking children into ‘care’ which tends not to have a good outcome for them). And women are much more likely to be the primary (or sole) parent than men, so this is mostly a women’s issue.

And anyway, the feminism I know is not just about the narrow concept of ‘equality’ defined as treating women exactly the same as men. For one thing that defines the whole movement as about aspiring to men’s current situation, which is far from perfect. It should be about trying to make society a better place for everyone.

Eliza // Posted 30 October 2008 at 12:01 pm

I have a real problem with this article. If people are no threat to anyone else then of course they shouldn’t be in prison, although this should be an issue regardless of gender, or whether someone is pregnant. While there are a lot of people in prison who don’t really deserve to be, you still have to commit a crime which damages someone else in order to get sent there, and being pregnant is something which a lot of judges would take into consideration when sentencing. I’m not saying that this isn’t an issue, just that all pregnant women in prison aren’t victims of the system in the way the article makes out.

My real problem with the article is the way that it seems to abdicate responsibility on behalf of the women who have been imprisoned – there will of course be cases of miscarriage of justice or overly harsh sentencing, but a lot of women are in prison because they have knowingly committed crimes which carry a prison sentence. Claiming that women, particularly pregnant ones, should be protected from the consequences of their own actions seems at best patronising, and at worst to be playing into the ‘they’re only women, they don’t really understand/know what they’re doing’ stereotype that’s so often hurled about, particularly at women who are pregnant.

Leigh // Posted 30 October 2008 at 12:55 pm

Tony Moll – I hope I’m not doling out nibbles from the big bag of troll food here, but don’t you think your comment would be better placed on Juliet Lyon’s article?

Secondly it’s not an equal situation, because it is the children of the women in the prison system who are being punished, and they are innocent. In fact they are about as innocent as you can get, and yet they are being deprived of a stable home environment for their early years. Their mothers may well be to ‘blame’ for that deprivation, but shouldn’t the prison system make some accommodation to minimise their suffering? Wouldn’t that be doing justice for the children?

In such a future time, that I hope to live to see (but probably won’t), when surgical modification and/or retro-gene therapy is sufficiently advanced that men gestating children within their bodies is a common place possibility then an equal provision could be made for male parents who carry to term while in custody.

Kath // Posted 30 October 2008 at 12:57 pm

Tony Moll, no-one is suggesting having one rule for men and another for women when it comes to dealing with criminals. As nick says we should be looking at reducing the prison population across the board. But things we have to look at when trying to figure out the answer include the different way men and women (esp mothers) experience and cope with prison, the different crimes that men and women commit and the different reasons they may have for committing them. If someone is the primary carer for a young child then this must come into consideration when deciding on a suitable sentence and like it or not that means mostly women at the moment.

Tony Moll // Posted 31 October 2008 at 1:55 am

The excuses on this thread are simply unbelieavable.

If a woman in the UK is sent to prison for a long time, it is usually for a very serious crime. If there is no one else to look after the kids then the social services have no choice but to take the kids away from her.

If she is sent to prison for a few months, social services would have to provide a short term care for them.

I’m happy with Judges being more lenient for parents with children, but that should be PARENTS not women. Of women are the parents almost always around and are more likey to benefit from this leniency and they currently do.

Yes, men and women are different. Men commit more crimes especially violent ones and therefore many more deservedly go to prison.

We are not exactly the same but we should still be treated as individuals BASED ON OUR ACTIONS.

Soirore // Posted 31 October 2008 at 2:05 pm

Tony – You are asking for equality based on the crimes committed but it is stated clearly in the article that more women than men are being sent to prison for petty crimes and first offences. This is not equal treatment.

It is also not unreasonable to ask for a recognition of difference between a pregnant person and another adult. People with different medical conditions, disabilities or needs are assessed for their suitability for prison this should be no different for a pregnant person.

Cara // Posted 31 October 2008 at 3:45 pm

‘Over a third of women in prison have no previous convictions – double the figure for men’.

Doesn’t that suggest that women are sentenced *more* harshly than men for the same crimes?

That’s not equal treatment – which I am in favour of. Yes, I do think women are responsible if they commit crimes (barring coercion e.g. trafficked and forced to solicit, for example, barring domestic violence victims retaliating etc.) but yes, feminism is not claiming that all women are innocent angels.

But the circumstances surrounding the crime should be taken into account.

As has also been pointed out, women are more often primary carers for children. If a man is primary carer for his child, something I am all in favour of, then that should be taken into account when sentencing too.

As others have said, no case is the same. But if a man and a woman commit comparable similar crimes, they should be treated in the same way. The point is, at the moment, they aren’t.

Shea // Posted 31 October 2008 at 4:53 pm

@ Tony Moll– what excuses? Every single poster on here says a variation on don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time. We are all advocating what you say, treat people as individuals based on their actions. As pointed out above there are mitigating factors when it somes to sentencing, these apply to men and women. Having children is a big reason for keeping people out of jail, but as you admit yourself it is more likely to be the mother who is the primary or sole carer, so it is more often a consideration in the case of women.

TBF is a woman or man has committed a violent or sexual offence I would question the sanity of allowing their child to remain with them in or out of prison and I don’t think that is what is being argued for here.

Less of the righteous anger please.

Jane King // Posted 10 February 2009 at 9:55 pm

My mother was brought up in an industrial school in Ireland and I have recently wanted to find out more about her experience. It saddens me to the depths of my heart that there is still a parallel to the industrial school movement and the work houses of the past in the prison service of today. It seems society as a whole hides away the product of all our worst failures behind bars so we don’t have to face up to them. ‘Respectable society’ has always chosen to further punish those who have already suffered terrible deprivations, that have often led them to wretched choices and actions. The fact that yet another generation are from birth incarcerated, and then often wrenched away from a loving and perhaps rehabilitating parent is a punishment too far, a form of mental and emotional torture for too many. When will we develop proper institutions on a human scale which truly are about rehibilitation and not punishment as such. Where society could start to meet the very real and deep needs of some of societies most impoverished members. I can’t help feeling that prisons perpetuate a kind of ‘them and us culture’ drawn mainly along class lines, with the most disanfranchised members simply put ‘out of sight and out of mind.

Chainsaw // Posted 11 February 2009 at 2:46 pm

I am baffled by the complete unwillingness to address the PURPOSES of prisons, and their effectiveness at those various, contradictory purposes.

If you want to punish someone, punish them. Enjoy it. But give up ANY idea that it is going to improve them in any way whatsoever as a human being. At BEST, it will cut off some part you disapprove of, but you will have little say in what is cut off along with it. It just might be, and often is, their conscience.

Punishing mothers with small children (even if they “deserve it”) produces another generation of damaged kids. Is it worth that, just to not have to do a little more work to figure out what WILL help the mother change her behavior? Especially when the mothers are TELLING you what will work better (i.e. paragraph 4)?

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