Women in prison: Inspectorate report

// 16 July 2010

Last week the Inspectorate of Prisons released a thematic report on women’s prisons.

Prisons are mostly populated by people who have been socially excluded in any number of ways, but there are, as you might expect, gendered aspects to these experiences. Female prisoners have frequently suffered domestic violence and/or sexual abuse, and mental health difficulties are particularly prevalent amongst women in prison, something illustrated especially starkly by one graphic statistic: women make up only 5% of the prison population in England and Wales, but account for almost half of the self-harm incidents in prison.

The new economics foundation has argued that more investment should be made into alternatives to custody for many women offenders, rather than the use of prison. In September 2008, 68% of women were in prison for non-violent offences, and in 2008, three quarters of sentenced women were serving less than twelve months. (Short prison sentences have recently been criticised by both Ken Clarke and the National Audit Office.) If the government is looking to make budget cuts, the costly use of damaging prison sentences is fertile ground for savings, with greater intervention in health, housing and other social services ultimately likely to be far more cost effective for society, in addition to being more just.

Read the Inspectorate report here.

Comments From You

Jennifer Drew // Posted 18 July 2010 at 10:41 am

There have been a number of reports including Fawcett’s reports on Women and the Criminal Justice system, all conerning the atrocious way in which women convicted of minor crimes are treated. Sadly, to date male-dominated governments continue to ignore these reports.

Instead the male ministers and their minions place male-dominated media opinion over and above the rights of women incacerated in these out-dated prisons.

Compared the men convicted of crimes, most the crimes these women have committed are not violent ones and occur primarily due to poverty.

Reducing the numbers of women incacerated for minor crimes would certainly reduce the huge budget but it would also raise claims of ‘discrimination against male prisoners.’ But this too ignores the fact there is no ‘level playing field’ when it concerns how the male-created and male-dominated legal system treats males and females who have been convicted of crimes.

Why? Because we live in a society which has a two tier system – one which apportions responsibility and blame differently to males convicted of crimes. Males are supposed to be more aggressive and supposedly have a tendency to commit acts of violence.

Whereas women convicted of crimes are punished because they are seen as having deviated from the so-called natural ‘feminine character.’ That is why women convicted of minor crimes are treated more severely than male criminals.

Disbelieve me? Read the Fawcett Reports on Women and the Criminal Justice System or take a look at The Howard League for Penal Reform, both of which provide factual evidence and first-hand accounts of women who have been imprisoned for minor crimes such as shop lifting or not paying their television licences.

Remember the law was created by and for men because women until recently were not even considered to be human – and that misogynistic lie has not changed signifcantly.

DE // Posted 18 July 2010 at 11:35 pm

I used to work as a criminal defence solicitor in a small provincial city. I would disagree that there is any bias at all against women when it come to sentencing. It is my experience that a bench of magistrates would be very reluctant to sentence either men or women to immediate custody for the offences you mentioned above.

However they will do it, if as the number of convictions build up, all other sentencing options fail. So for shoplifting , the first time you appear in front of a bench of magistrates typically you’ll get a conditional discharge or a small fine. The amount you’re fined will depend on your means – for those on benefits the bench would agree to the request that the person by allowed to pay £10.00 per fortnight. Typically the defendant will have been caught red handed and would have pleaded guilty to the offence. It’s very common for the motivation for such minor thefts to be for financing the daily need to buy drugs. People addicted to drugs steal virtually every day and then sell on to a ‘fence’ or go down to pubs clubs etc to find buyers. Despite committing these thefts daily, they wouldn’t be caught that often – but again typically they’d be back before the bench within a couple of months, so then a slightly bigger fine – a ticking off for not paying off the first – this can go on for years – especially as long as they don’t get caught that often. There comes a times when community based sentences get thrown into the mix – probation will have prepared a pre-sentence report recommending a cocktail of programmes to deal with issues that the defendant has – drugs, alcohol mental health etc – again all too often – as with fines not being paid, community sentences get breached – they’re made slightly more ‘onerous’ – e.g. say 10 more hours onto the original sentence. And so on ,thefts keep being committed, fines unpaid, community sentences remain breached

Next the bench will move onto a suspended custodial sentence and if that gets breached, then that is when you go inside for a short sentence – the community sentence gets substituted and the fines that got accumulated over the months if not years – are wiped clean off the slate completely. But the statistics then show that a women (or man) has received a prison sentence for non-violent offences.

So if you have a solution to this, I’m sure people would love to hear from you- write in to big Ken. For myself, I think they should do major research on the pros and cons of decriminalising drugs and allow abusers to get their intake on prescription .

As for the notion that you get prison for simply a non payment of TV license – yeah right ! (although, again you will get imprisonment eventually if you refuse to pay the fine – or if the bench find you are wilfully culpable of not paying. Even then you play the game – for fines of less than £200 you will receive a week in custody, but only serve half of that 3 day – if there is a warrant out for your arrest for non payment of fines, turn up to court on Thursday for the sentence to be carried out and you will be released the very next day, because Prison do not release over the weekend and they can’t hold you in until the Monday.

polly // Posted 20 July 2010 at 1:24 pm

According to the Howard League for penal reform

“Nearly a third of all women in prison in 2007 had no previous convictions; more than double the figure for men”


masculnist // Posted 21 July 2010 at 12:28 pm

maybe a way of sorting out crime and sentancing. one crime = one sentance.

muder = life in prison, rape = life in prison , drink driving = 2 years in prison and so on …. no matter who does the crime , the punishment remains the same. Yes it might increase the prison population at first , but it should decrease it over time.

Sentancing wont be gendered , non violent crimes will have the same punishment ,may not be a jail sentance , so it should keep more people out of prison, men and women.

Jolene Tan // Posted 21 July 2010 at 12:35 pm

@masculnist Very often even if all the elements in the definition of a crime are met, there will be huge differences in the circumstances of the crime which it’s worth taking into account. Mandatory sentencing has a huge risk of leading to sentence inflation, especially as the media and politicians manipulate the fear of crime and focus only on sensational cases of each kind of crime. I think judicial discretion in sentencing is pretty important.

DE // Posted 21 July 2010 at 10:49 pm

@ Polly – Its difficult to know why that might be without information on what their offences were. One possibility is that it might be down to the preferential recruitment of women as ‘mules’ to bring drugs into the UK. Such offences will inevitably cross the custody threshold and almost certainly the women would be remanded into custody if awaiting trial. As they’d be unknown to the Police National Computer they would be classed as first time offenders.

Here is a link to a BBC story involving Nigerian women


HowardLeagueIntern // Posted 22 July 2010 at 10:53 am

This is a very insightful article, and as someone has already pointed out, the Howard League has been campaigning on this issue for a while: for more information visit http://www.howardleague.org/lost-daughters/

An interesting point to add to the debate is the fact that 66% of female prisoners have child dependants aged 18 or less (and 34% have children under 5). These women tend to be the main or sole care-givers, which means that sending them to prison has a disproportionate effect not only on them, but also on their children.

And don’t forget that this problem is made much worse by the fact that women tend to be incarcerated much further away from their home than men (simply because there are less female prisons throughout the country).

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