Deborah Orr: When punishment becomes a crime

'The picture is not one of women taking on macho garb, instead it is of women who clearly can't cope with their lives'
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The Independent Online

In 1970, there were fewer than 1, 000 women in prison in England and Wales. Now, for the first time, there are more than 4,000. Those eager to curb the onward march of female emancipation insist that this is proof that women are becoming more like men in all the wrong ways.

In 1970, there were fewer than 1, 000 women in prison in England and Wales. Now, for the first time, there are more than 4,000. Those eager to curb the onward march of female emancipation insist that this is proof that women are becoming more like men in all the wrong ways.

They point to drunk girls on weekend nights out in city centres – or Oxbridge colleges – as evidence for the their thesis. These drunk girls are violent, as drunk people so often are, the logic runs. And their violence is getting them into all kinds of trouble. All that spoils the sweep of such arguments is the fact that it is not convictions for violence that are swelling the ranks of female convicts. There has been a small rise in the numbers of women convicted of violence against the person, but the biggest increase – of 44 per cent – has been for robbery.

What's more, though it is true that the female prison population has been rising for the past 30 years, it's risen by half as much during this year alone as it did in the previous three decades. Women have been going out and getting legless for quite a while now but, despite the exhortations of the media in the past couple of years, they're not suddenly being thrown into the cells just for that.

A leap in prison numbers like this – so large that the third men's gaol in the past year is now being converted for use by female prisoners – can only be explained by a change in sentencing. The Home Secretary, Jack Straw, urged judges not to flinch from harsher custodial sentences. Clearly and simply, they've taken him at his word.

So if it isn't drunk girls out for a raucous time on Saturday nights who are finding themselves in prison, then who is it? The communality of problems that is shared among female prisoners is sad but unsurprising. Research among inmates at the London women's prison, Holloway, found three-quarters had an identifiable mental disorder, nearly half had drug problems, and 10 per cent were on suicide watch.

Other research hones these woeful statistics further, suggesting that half of female prisoners have been sexually abused, half are self-harming, a third are in debt, and "a high proportion" have been brought up in care. Half are also mothers, two-thirds of them with children younger than 10, and further disturbed by their separation from their offspring.

The picture that emerges here is not of women taking on macho garb and choosing criminality as a desirable lifestyle. Instead, it is of women who are desperate, who clearly cannot cope with their lives. There is a kind of violence here but it is violence that in the vast majority of cases is inwardly directed. The people that these damaged women are damaging are themselves. The most awful lesson about what can happen when these sorts of women are herded together in over-crowded, under-resourced prisons, as occured in the Scottish women's prison, Cornton Vale. In the period between 1995 and 1998, the prison was home to no fewer than eight suicides, two of them 17-year-olds and one a 19-year-old on remand for shoplifting.

In 1998, a new governor was brought in, whose compassionate and inspiring attitude appeared to have turned the prison around. She was promoted, and left four months ago. In that time, there have been two more suicides at Cornton Vale. This institution, designed to house 178, held 247 prisoners at the time of the second of this year's suicides. It was recently described by Clive Fairweather, Scotland's chief inspector of prisons, as "no longer a prison. It's a psychiatric ward and an addiction clinic."

In fact, the plight of female prisoners chimes rather closely with the beliefs of the discredited campaigner against domestic violence, Erin Pizzey. Pizzey came to fame as the prime mover in the setting up of refuges for battered women and fell from feminist prominence when she began asserting that violence in families was not always physical and not always perpetrated by men. She's still a firm believer in her unorthodox hypothesis, which is simply that those from dysfunctional, violent, sexually abusive families continue the violence in their own adult lives, with the difference that the anger comes out in women in different ways. They may not be physically violent, but they can be abusive to partners, children or themselves, and by extention to those near and dear to them, in other ways.

It's notable that a pioneer in bringing the abuse of women out of the domestic sphere and into the public domain should have come to see matters from this angle. One result of the emancipation that Ms Pizzey helped to shape is that the difficulties experienced by the women in dysfunctional families are no longer taboo, no longer contained in the household where the suffering is silent and finds little outward expression. Out in the world, it can, and does, become criminal. Men, who have always had a place in the wider world, have long been treated without sympathy for their transgressions. Now women's transgressions are becoming more frequent and are being treated with less sympathy too.

The question is, is putting such people, male or female, in prison the best way of dealing with this cycle? Female prison populations are still manageble enough in size for the idea that women prisoners can be treated in a different way to remain a wholly tenable one. Success here could change attitudes to incarceration more generally. But the popularity generally of "hang'em and flog 'em" political rhetoric suggests that this window of opportunity is closing all the time.

Britain's prison population as a whole is now at its largest ever, although male conviction rates are not rising as quickly as female ones. For those who believe in punishment mainly as a deterrent and a holding operation, the fact that crime overall is falling is proof that increased incarceration is the right policy. But condemning people to the most brutal treatment that the system has to offer is not humane, and tends as well to escalate as time goes on.

Britain has more people per head of population in prison than any other country in Europe, except Portugal. The US has more people in prison – 702 per 100,000 people – than any other country in the world. There, too, crime is falling. But in the US attitudes are hardening not just to women but to children, in the most brutal way.

In the current issue of Amnesty, the magazine of Amnesty International, the US is highlighted as a major perpetrator of human rights abuses within its judicial system, specifically of breaking the international law which prohibits the death penalty for defendants who committed crimes when they were younger than 18.

We may be able to console ourselves that we are protected from the temptation to conduct similar abuses simply because we do not have the death penalty. But those stark facts still betray what can happen in the most free and democratic of democracies when it convinces itself that harsh punishment alone is the answer to criminal activity. Those who die in British prisons do so by their own hand, or by the hand of other prisoners. The more people we lock up without real hope of rehabilitation, education, or medical help, the more will die in this manner. The sudden explosion in the female prison population is a terrible warning of the trouble wherein we may find ourselves in the future. This is a trend that must be reversed.