Tuesday, 29 May 2007

Women In Prison

by Chelsea McKinney and Althea Cribb from GLDVP

There are over 4000 women in prison – most should never have been sent there. Approximately two thirds are on remand awaiting trial or sentence – under half receive a prison sentence, while one in five is acquitted altogether...

The punitive environment can be damaging to women’s mental health and compound experiences of victimisation, while often doing little to support them or stop them re-offending. It costs £77,000 a year to keep a woman in prison, yet in 2003, 63% of women released from prison were reconvicted within two years.

Momentum is building behind a campaign to change this situation, and provide alternatives for women offenders – and those at risk of offending – who are often very vulnerable. Pressure comes from the Corston Report on vulnerable women in the criminal justice system, from a petition supporting her recommendations and calling on the government to implement them, and most recently from Cherie Blair , who highlighted the fact that 100 babies are born in prison each year.

Prison is inappropriate, unnecessary and harmful for most women offenders – as well as expensive and usually ineffective. It is worth quoting just some statistics, which highlight the many issues faced by women prisoners: only 16% have committed violent offences – most are imprisoned for theft or handling of stolen goods; more than 60% are mothers; 70% suffer from two or more mental health problems; 37% have attempted suicide; nearly a quarter have experienced self harm; and over 50% have experienced domestic violence – though other estimates put this figure much higher; there are a disproportionate number of black and minority ethnic women in prison; and around 20% of the female prison population are foreign nationals.

As Baroness Corston so rightly recommends, the solution is increased use of community punishments, and the development of holistic women’s centres. Such centres could then more effectively address women’s offending by considering their experiences of domestic violence and abuse, mental health problems, and drug and alcohol use, being aware of how these intersect and lead to criminal behaviour.

Appropriate interventions in the community would prevent the unnecessary and damaging situation where so many women who lose their homes on imprisonment, and have nowhere to go on release, leading to separation from their children, families and homes. Neither community punishments, nor a more therapeutic prison environment, are ‘soft’ options. They are not only more effective, but are much more challenging for women than interventions which do not require such personal exploration and development.


Corston Report: http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/documents/corston-report/

Petition: http://www.womeninprison.org.uk/index.php?option=com_mospetition&Itemid=83

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