Joan Bakewell: How to solve the prisons crisis: free all the women

Crime is one human activity where there is a clear difference between men and women

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Never has there been such a clear solution to a declared problem. Never has there been such a coincidence of evidence and advisory papers converging on a social issue the politicians are refusing to solve. I refer of course to the long-foreseen crisis in prisons, the ever-rising number of those with prison sentences, and the howls of alarm from all those forces and individuals who have the solution at their fingertips.

It is quite simply this. Let the women go! The Government should close women's prisons down, forthwith. They could then use the buildings to house the male prisoners who are currently to be placed at great expense, inconvenience and the irritation of the police service, in the police cells of your local police station. The fact is that government policy is looking in that direction already; all research by penal reformers tends to the view that it is totally inappropriate to slam women when other ways of dealing with them help avoid their re-offending. So why not, given the sudden crisis for prison places, act now, turning to good account the prevailing wisdom, and saving money in the process.

Crime is one human activity where there is a clear difference between men and women. We needn't worry whether that's down to nature or nurture, the explanations from evolutionary psychology or simple biology. Women do not make up the criminal classes. There are some 89,000 people in prison right now. A mere 4,500 of them are women. Unhappily the figures are rising: there are 1,771 more women and girls in prison now than there were when Labour came to power in May 1997. And not only their numbers, but the nature of their crimes are different from men.

Very few women - and there are a handful - have committed crimes of violence that require them to be locked away for the safety of the public. The overwhelming majority of women's crimes are property based: theft of various kinds from shop-lifting to burglary, usually such goods as clothes and food for their hard-up families, whereas men more commonly thieve electrical goods for selling on. And on the whole, women prisoners are serving relatively short sentences, under 12 months, which is just enough to create havoc in their families and not enough for them to benefit from training courses and rehabilitation schemes.

So, if the proposal is to let them out, what are these women like? An unpublished analysis of those in Holloway prison gives a pretty clear picture of largely young women - 62 per cent were under 30 - rattling around in disorganised lives at the bottom of the social heap; 50 per cent have experienced or witnessed sexual abuse; 73 per cent had used illegal drugs; 61 per cent had a least one child and 32 per cent had been put on formal suicide watch while in prison. Some 42 women have committed suicide since 2002 and many others cut themselves with knives and blades.

This is as pitiable picture of wretchedness as Dickens could have imagined. All the more surprising because almost half these women had not been in prison before. What are they doing there now, rather than getting the care and help they need and learning there are other ways to pay their debt to society?

The ordeal of prison, too, is entirely different for women. As the pivotal figure within any family group, a woman's absence creates immediate dangers for others. For some reason women are twice as likely as men to be held more than 50 miles from their homes. So their chances of holding together what may well be a precarious family situation are nil; their ability to exert any control at all on wayward children is also nil. Extended families of ageing parents and dependents don't get a look in. The whole thing is a knock-on series of disasterous outcomes for them and those who look to them in their lives.

How much more sensible it would be for women to serve their time doing community service. They could be back each night with their families, and begin to shape up some concept of responsibility. Given that many of them regularly take drugs, then prison, with its thriving illicit traffic among inmates, is the last place to help them kick the habit. The boredom and anxiety of cell life only make things worse. It would be far better to harness their community service to drug treatments and required visits to their GP. The alternative to prison has to be a vigorous and positive programme of rehabilitation that can't be dismissed as a soft option. Many such women need and welcome help to get their lives back.

The Government is aware of all this. After six young women committed suicide within one year at just one prison, Styal in Cheshire, they were forced to take notice. Following a Fawcett Society report in April about the very same subject, the matter could be delayed no longer.

Earlier this year Baroness Corston was asked to conduct a review of vulnerable women in the criminal justice system. As MP for Bristol she served on the Home Affairs Committee on human rights and chaired an inquiry into deaths in custody. She is well briefed to understand how damaging prison is for women. Her report is expected to go the appropriate ministers in December.

There is no time to lose. While politicians of both parties prattle on about building more jails, a remedy to overcrowding is at hand, one that answers growing concern for women in custody. Now is the time to kill two birds with one stone.

joan.bakewell@virgin.net

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