Our prisons are full of women who shouldn’t be there. This has to stop

Nothing is achieved by locking up women for minor offences. We might as well set fire to a big pile of banknotes and dance around them

Janet Street-Porter
Friday 12 February 2016 18:04
80 per cent of women prisoners have not committed a violent crime
80 per cent of women prisoners have not committed a violent crime

Nothing is achieved by locking up women for minor offences. We might as well set fire to a big pile of banknotes and dance around them.

There are approximately 3,800 women in prison today, depriving 17,000 children of their mothers. Children who have to be shunted around family members or placed in care, eating up even more limited resources than the £36,000 it costs to imprison someone for a year. Children who will be stigmatised through no fault of their own.

There are two issues here. First, is it cost effective to stick someone in a cell when there might be cheaper and possibly more effective options? And second, in the 21st century, sending someone to prison is no deterrent and statistics prove it doesn’t change their future behaviour.

Successive home secretaries’ determination to be “tough on crime” with stiffer sentences has increased the prison population by a third – the vast majority of whom will reoffend, having children who will probably follow in their footsteps. This cycle needs to be broken, and I can’t believe that a female drug carrier or a shoplifter, who is probably the victim of abuse herself, will learn anything from prison other than the chance to meet others in the same boat.

David Cameron offered some thoughts about penal reform last week, commenting it was “absolutely terrible” that small children were incarcerated with their mothers – women who had themselves been born in jail 20 years earlier. When a pregnant prisoner gives birth, the child can stay with her for up to 18 months. Last year, about 100 babies were living with their mothers in prison. Cameron has ordered a review to determine whether mothers and babies could be housed in resettlement units or tagged. You could argue that this is sexual discrimination: why treat mums differently from fathers? Surely there are plenty of men in prison who would like to bond with their children and they are not being considered for special treatment. At the risk of enraging you, I’d argue that women deserve to be treated differently.

The majority (80 per cent) of women prisoners have not committed a violent crime; 60 per cent are serving sentences of six months or less, of which almost half are for theft and handling stolen goods or drugs. A large number of female prisoners have committed their crime to support someone else – often a man who controls them – and a third will lose their homes while they are in jail.

Research shows that a large number of women in prison suffered physical or sexual abuse as children, and a third have been in care. These are damaged people who are illiterate and under-educated, with low self-esteem. If someone brought you a dog with a broken leg, would you lock it up because it had nicked a plate of food? Yet we treat female prisoners worse than our pets.

It’s not being soft on crime to try – as Cameron seems to be articulating – to find a more constructive way to break the cycle of reoffending, which is rooted in social and emotional deprivation. Prisoners should be at the top of our agenda. More people are incarcerated (100,000) than live in Doncaster or Eastbourne, and the problem won’t be solved by building bigger jails.

In Sweden, the reoffending rate stands at between 30 per cent and 40 per cent over three years – half that of the UK – and they have been closing jails, not building new ones. There, a prisoner is categorised by their “needs”, with appropriate intensive support.

Would you pay slightly more tax to remove women from prison, offer them mentoring, education and training in residential units with their children, with the goal of getting them off benefits and out of a cycle of petty crime? I can’t see any other humane answer to the time bomb that’s ticking away inside our prisons.

Rock gods don’t always have the best taste in design

In late 1966, I was a second-year student at the Architectural Association in London. I could pretend I worked hard, but these were exciting times and a huge amount of time was spent at parties, art happenings and gigs. Pink Floyd even played at one of our college events.

The highlight was seeing Jimi Hendrix perform at a dance at Imperial College – and by then I’d seen the Stones and the Yardbirds in tiny venues. On stage he surpassed them all, a powerhouse of energy and brilliance.

By 1968, Jimi was well established in London and moved into a top-floor flat at 23 Brook Street – next door to the former home of another musical legend, Handel. Now the museum premises have been renamed Handel and Hendrix, and the rock god’s bedroom has been lovingly re-created, complete with embroidered silk shawls, wall hangings and a shell-encrusted stash box.

Having hauled myself up the narrow stairs past Handel’s music room, dressing room and bedroom to the third floor, I was rather disappointed to discover it has cost millions (courtesy of a Heritage Lottery grant) to lovingly craft an interior that looks exactly like my first scruffy bedroom in a shared flat in Earl’s Court in 1966.

If I had known that scratchy tapestry cushions, Moroccan fabrics and half-drunk bottles of Mateus rosé were to become fetishised objects of worship like holy relics, then I wouldn’t have put the whole lot in a skip and replaced it with Art Deco by 1970. The late Sixties produced memorable music, but appalling taste in interiors.

How to turn fictional agony into concrete help for women

Listening to The Archers is like eavesdropping on the most subtle and horrifying form of domestic abuse happening right in your kitchen, and you’re powerless to intervene. The legal definition of abuse was recently widened to include “controlling behaviour”. Having experienced this myself a long time ago, I can testify that abuse doesn’t mean you are being physically touched, but your mind is no longer your own.

It is utterly evil and cruel, and three cheers for the scriptwriters who have highlighted this through Helen and Rob’s ghastly relationship. She is slowly losing the strength to argue, as he systematically takes over every aspect of her life. One fan had the brilliant idea of setting up a JustGiving page to raise money for Refuge, calling the page “The Helen Titchener Rescue Fund”, and almost £50,000 has been received in a week – money which will help real-life victims of domestic abuse find somewhere safe to go.

We need to think more about how we leave this planet

I’ve been to two funerals this week. First a memorial service immediately after the cremation of my friend Charlie Courtauld, who died after a long illness. We sang along to the Pogues and heard a poem about pugs, a moving celebration of a funny bloke who was devoted to his family.

Yesterday, I said goodbye to my only nephew Kerry, whose life tragically ended after a stroke in his thirties. The only consolation I have is that he leaves a gorgeous little boy, Owen, who looks exactly like him. Saying anything on these occasions is difficult; I wish there was another way to leave this planet instead of a funeral. Following a body in a box just seems not good enough.

I haven’t planned my own funeral. (Maybe you could come up with appropriate suggestions.) The Natural Death Centre issued a crass quote this week about the need to get “value for money” when planning a funeral. Perhaps my body could go straight to bags of compost.

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