Women in prison are not inherently vulnerable – but they are disadvantaged in multiple ways, argues Professor Jo Phoenix
Women in Prison: a guest blog by Prof Jo Phoenix
Women in prison bear the brunt of class and sex inequality
Jo Phoenix, professor of criminology, University of Reading
In discussions about the need to keep women’s prisons single-sex, there is often an emphasis on the vulnerability of women. Yet women in prison are not inherently vulnerable. Their vulnerability is created by the abject failure of successive governments to deal with the effects on individual women of living in a society structured by class- and sex-based inequalities. These effects are borne disproportionately by working-class and marginalised women, and include economic poverty and precarity; lives torn apart by male physical and sexual violence; and the soul-breaking pressure on individual women created by a state that has abrogated its responsibilities for child care. These women also experience poorer housing and education and are often reliant on social security. All this combines to generate, for some women, a cycle of drug and alcohol addiction, involvement in crime and other forms of law-breaking.
The story of women in prison is a paradigmatic story of how social problems get turned into penal problems. Take the story of Hermione, told to me by Hermione’s social worker. It serves to demonstrate some very important issues about how sex-based inequalities, failures of welfare and support services and class collide to tear apart the lives of women.
Hermione was sentenced to a short-term prison sentence. She had grown up in an abusive family – her mother, herself a victim of domestic violence, was physically violent to Hermione, while Hermione’s father was sexually abusive. At the age of 16, Hermione ran away to live with her much older boyfriend. Social services did little apart from periodically checking in on her. One afternoon the boyfriend brought home several of his friends. Hermione, who had been sexually exploited by her boyfriend, knew that regardless of whether she consented, these men were going to ‘have sex’ with her that night.
Before this, though, the boyfriend wanted her to make dinner. He sent Hermione to the local store where she stole a frozen chicken – under the nose of the security officer. She was arrested and later prosecuted, convicted and imprisoned for that theft, because it happened on top of many existing convictions of theft. Her boyfriend was never arrested.
Women in prison – the facts
In England and Wales, women make up only 4% of the total prison population. Women are sentenced to prison for far less serious crimes than men and serve disproportionately more short-term sentences (ie sentences less than 12 months). In 2021, 63% of prison sentences started by women were short-term sentences, compared to 48% for men. Women are also disproportionately sentenced to remand. There are only 11 female prisons in England, none in Wales and three in
Scotland, which means that women in prison are, in comparison to men, disproportionately isolated from friends, family and their own children. Many women in prison are more offended against than offending.
Statistics collected by the Prison Reform Trust tell a depressing tale
- More than 50% of female prisoners have reported emotional, physical or sexual abuse as a
child, compared with 27% of men in prison
- Forty-nine percent have been diagnosed with anxiety and depression, compared with only
19% of the female population in the UK
- On entry to prison, 25% of women reported feeling suicidal in comparison to 12% of men
- 25% of women in prison, but only 13% of men, reported drug and alcohol problems
Female prisoners’ poor mental health is seen most clearly in self-harm statistics. In 2021, 22% of all self-harming behaviours across the entire prison estate were carried out by women, even though they made up only 4% of the prison population. Although men in prison may have similar histories, the difference is in the intensity and consistency of those experiences.
Other studies are equally concerning. Many women in prison are mothers (roughly 60% compared with 45% for men). Mothers in prison are more likely to be the primary caregivers to children than fathers in prison. Ninety-five percent of children of incarcerated women have to leave the family home when their mother is incarcerated, and 40% of those are cared for by grandparents. Around 9% of children are looked after by their father. Most of the rest end up in local authority care. Yet, when fathers go to prison, about 75% of their children stay in the family home.
Knowing everything that we know about the multiple and intersecting disadvantages women face – that both shape their lawbreaking and then as a consequence of incarceration – there is a strong evidence base for diverting most women criminals out of the criminal justice system altogether. If this is not possible, then programmes of intervention in local women’s centres that deal directly with the effects of sexism and class inequalities (and the multiple traumas these might cause) surely must be better than incarceration.
We should stop talking about vulnerability and trauma
Women in prison deserve more than a campaign to safeguard them and their single-sex spaces. The campaign for prisons to be single-sex focuses on the trauma and vulnerability of women in prison and this may well be true in the lives of individual women. I prefer to frame the problem not as their special vulnerability but as one of having had to bear the burden of the personal and social effects of class-based inequalities, sex-based inequalities and male violence. It is not the women who need individually fixing. They need us to fight to address the sexism, the misogyny and the callousness of governments hellbent on driving neo-liberal economic policies – all of which mean that some those women who bear the brunt of class and sex-based inequalities often end up in prison.
The campaign for the right of women to be accommodated in a single-sex prison must not stop there. We must do more because if the campaign for single-sex spaces means anything, it should mean addressing the conditions that generate the need for single-sex spaces in the first place.
Women in Prison: a guest blog by Prof Jo Phoenix
Jo Phoenix is bringing an employment tribunal claim to hold the OU to account for the public campaign of harassment because of her feminist views. Read more and support her case here.
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