My Dad worked on prison reform, way back in the last century. Obviously (I thought!) because he was a bloke, he worked in male prisons (I just learned that female prisons also have male officers but there you go). One of the things dad often said was that people are obsessed with how many *years* people get, when they read about this or that crime but that in his experience, if someone was sent to prison for more than THREE MONTHS their lives fell apart – home lost, job lost, friends lost, relationships changed or broken… He reckoned their lives would not recover, they were condemned to a dysfunctional existence and would probably be back in prison again after a bit of flailing around.
These days, a lot of people accused of crimes end up in prison for more than three months *on remand*. But last night, I was told that most women in prison are there for ‘short’ spells – on remand, or with sentences of six months for petty crimes. Lives ruined. It’s estimated that there are perhaps a few dozen women in the entire country whose crimes suggest they might be any kind of danger to life and limb. Most then, go into prison, get their lives ruined, and for no useful reason whatsoever.
Prisons are not fit for purpose
We’ve had the evidence of that before our eyes for decades. Why has nothing been done? The meeting I went to last night was mainly supposed to be about a problem specific to the current women’s sex-based rights campaign. We were there to ask why self-identified trans people (men who say ‘I am a woman’), are housed in female prisons, when a court has judged that is detrimental to women. Why is it still happening?
So yes, I ask why but, as many of my friends and colleagues have commented during and after last night’s meeting, we have a whole basketful of urgent problems on the topic of women in prison.
There are about 5000 women in prison in the UK, mostly on remand, or on short sentences. Thing is, when you’re up in court, you don’t know how it’s all going to end. Women have often sent their kids to school, then they’re sent down. They can’t make phone calls, to the world outside they’ve ‘gone’. In some cell, somewhere in the country, they are wondering where their kids are, and who might have picked them up from school, and told them what.
If they’re single parents, the kids will lose their home. If they have violent partners (a large proportion of the women in prison are there on charges that stem from domestic violence situations) if they have violent partners, they are thinking about the kids left at home with no-one to protect them. If they are refugees who’ve been detained, they haven’t even had a chance to get started on life here. Women in prison tend to believe they’ve failed, and begin to self-harm, get suicidal, or get drawn into drug use. There is ample opportunity for all those things in British prisons.
About 18 000 kids a year are affected by their parents going into prison. Professionals in childcare talk about things called ACEs – ‘adverse childhood experiences’. Mum going into prison is one of those, one that often leads to more, as life plummets into chaos and ‘care’. It’s reckoned that 4 ACEs are enough to guarantee that a child will grow up too troubled to ever entirely get control of their life.
When men go into prisons, their families become in effect single-parent families. When women go into prison, 95% of the affected children are displaced from their homes.
There is rarely a public safety reason for putting women in prison. I know of no other reason for putting someone in prison than that they are a danger to themselves or others. Although it can seem, initially, like a respite from abuse or from sex-trade traps, the notion of prison as ‘a safe place’ or as ‘deterrence’ is absurd, when we know that prisons are a hive of crime and dysfunctional behaviour.
I haven’t got around to worrying about the thing about male prisoners who declare themselves women, get moved to female prisons, take the opportunity to pester and frighten women, then declare themselves men again when they come out, but when I do, I am going to be *very* angry. I hope you will be too.
Men tend to be bigger and stronger than women, and are more likely to cause harm to women although yes, sometimes women bully other women, too. Those bullies, of whatever type, are doing immeasurable harm both to women and to most trans women, for whom all of this is just plain terrifying – and all due to bad laws and worse interpretations of those laws, by Stonewall and their ilk.
If you’d like to find out more, or if you’d like to help…