What are prisons for?

Downview women's prison

When I was younger, most people who weren’t on the fairly far right politically thought prisons were a safe place to put people who were a danger to others. Knowing that there are very few women who are seriously a danger to others, I went along to a meeting about prisons recently and discovered that whilst there are maybe 4 or 5 thousand women in prison in the UK, only perhaps a few dozen are seriously violent. So, the meeting asked, why do women get incarcerated? What does that do?

More on that here…

But another question I came away with was, who are these dangerous women? How does that happen? Well on the one hand, there are women who have been brought up in chaos and poverty, who have been victims of male violence, deceit and exploitation from the start, and who have eventually been pushed to a point where they fight back – with the force of a lifetimesworth of desperation. If you’ve a strong constitution, you can find out how that works by reading about Emma Humphreys.

More on that here…

Last week, my local women’s group invited a woman who used to work in the prison service to tell us more – and the more that she told us was profoundly shocking.

International drug smugglers

They are really bad people, aren’t they. They ought to go to prison for the longest time, shouldn’t they? Are you, like me, imagining oily men with expensive leather coats and hidden guns, driving to sleazy night clubs in long, low cars? Well, those guys are in the equation somewhere but the people who regularly get the 20-year sentences for that particular crime are usually women from Jamaica or certain African countries, whose children have been kidnapped, who have been beaten and threatened and told in no uncertain terms that if they complete a piece of business that involves a plane ride, their kids just might come out of the deal alive.

What would you do?

You remember that few dozen seriously dangerous women they have in prison? I wonder how many of them are lost, confused, desperate ‘international drug smugglers’ who will probably never see home or family again, and never know if their kids survived the failure of the piece of business.

prison toilet
Just a comment

Place of safety

The other thing I found quite shocking was the discovery that women who have been abused and exploited all their lives, women like Emma Humphreys, often go to great lengths to avoid being let out of prison because for them, for all its unpleasantness and frustrations, prison has been the only place they’ve ever felt safe from imminent attack.

Sadly, the same cannot be said of men’s prisons. Many of the inmates of men’s prisons are dangerously violent and the atmosphere is febrile and permanently close to violence. That’s why it seems doubly awful that violent men can now avoid the kinds of things that happen in men’s prisons – such as workshops to tackle sex-offending – by getting themselves moved into women’s prisons.

So – why are women in prison? First and foremost, women are in prison because poverty, deprivation and male violence corner them into desperate acts. Second, women are in prison because they commit crimes such as international drug smuggling, or defending themselves by attacking with kitchen knives, crimes that voters like to hear get long sentences. Politicians know this, but they also often like the short route to pleasing voters.

Please help to change this

How? Well, the first and easiest thing would be to help us tell more people why women are in prison. Another would be to join campaigns against poverty, deprivation and male violence.

Find out more here…

The Howard League


Lucy Baldwin on Women in Prison

The law does not work for women


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