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How the British Prison System Fails Female Criminals

Subjecting nonviolent women to the penal torment and social stigma of prison does a hell of a lot more harm than good—for both the inmates and their children.
August 12, 2015, 3:40pm

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

Walking to sixth-form each day, the burgundy bricks of HMP Holloway were a daily presence in my life. I couldn't help but wonder who lived in Europe's largest women's prison. No doubt, I would have been surprised to learn then, as you may well be now, that 80 percent of women prisoners are inside for nonviolent crimes.

A recent report from the Prison Reform Trust has revealed the sharp disparity between male and female offenders. Women prisoners are twice as likely as men to have no previous convictions. As such, the vast majority of female inmates are imprisoned for nonviolent, low-level crimes, with theft and handling offenses being the main driver to custody. In short, women ultimately receive harsher treatment from the Criminal Justice System than men for equivalent crimes.


This is all the more shocking when you consider the life circumstances of female prisoners. According to stats from the Prison Reform Trust, not only have half of women in prison experienced domestic violence, 53 percent suffered abuse while they were children. On top of this, they are nearly twice as likely to suffer from depression as men in prison. Almost a third of female inmates had a psychiatric admission prior to entering prison.

Sophie Miller*, 35, has experienced the British prison system firsthand. "After being charged for internal company fraud, I spent eight months inside Holloway prison. Although my history was squeaky clean and I had no previous convictions, the judge said in light of your position, we need to make an example.

"My time inside was a chilling experience. I'll remember it forever," reflects Miller. "It was massively overcrowded and dirty with no real care and attention to detail apart from herding people around. The facilities are not even the bare minimum. I didn't have a mattress for the first few days, I was just sleeping on the bed frame.

"I think people forget that you go to prison to have your freedom taken away from you. Your punishment is not to have no clean environment to live in or no bed-sheets or fresh air and to not be able to read a book. Nothing in Holloway rehabilitates you."

During her time in prison, Miller encountered numerous women who were pregnant but many more who were already mothers. "I was continually told by inmates that I was very lucky that I didn't have children. Every single mother inside I met struggled with being so far away from her child."


On top of this, Miller also met an "inordinate amount" of inmates who suffered from mental health problems. "Once I saw them put a fire hose through the hole in the cell door to calm a woman down. But more often, they'd get riot guards to take women who were screaming and shouting away and then they'd bring them back and they'd be in their cell sedated for three days. These women shouldn't be in there in the first place."

Psychologically, Miller still feels the effects of prison on her day-to-day life. "It's been really mentally damaging. I just feel completely differently about everything. I don't like people standing behind me. I'm always vigilant and on high alert for everything. It's proven research that that's what prison does to you. I should have been given a community sentence. What is the point of me being in prison for a few months to traumatize rather than rehabilitate me?"

Like many, Miller has struggled to find work since leaving HMP Holloway. "I was in corporate banking before so I applied for lots of jobs that were equivalent to that and lower but I didn't hear anything. There's no way in the world that they wouldn't have interviewed me for those jobs before I went to prison. But when you have a criminal record, employers don't want to touch you with a barge pole."

In Miller's view, the social stigma towards ex-female convicts is far greater than male inmates. "Judges view women who commit crime differently to how they view men. They almost think that because you're a woman, you should know better—that you should have more responsibility."


Miller is not alone. Britain has one of the highest rates of female imprisonment in the whole of western Europe. There are currently 4,320 women serving time inside British prisons—twice the amount that there were 20 years ago. In addition to this, it is estimated that 17,000 children are separated from their mothers each year because of imprisonment.

The majority of the women who wind up in British prisons have been failed by state services long before they are dragged into the criminal justice system.

It goes without saying that when a mother is sent to prison, her children's lives are turned upside down. Only 5 percent of children are able to remain in their own home. On top of this, it is often difficult for female inmates to see their children during prison visits—the dearth of women's prisons means women are held an average of 62 miles away from their home. And as life goes on, it comes as no surprise that the children of prisoners disproportionately suffer—they are twice as likely to have mental health problems and they are at a higher risk of offending in later life. And so history repeats itself.

What's more, it's worth noting that the majority of the women who wind up in British prisons have been failed by state services long before they are dragged into the criminal justice system. Plagued with mental health problems and histories of domestic violence and addiction, the female prison population is a deeply vulnerable and troubled demographic. To put this into context, women accounted for 26 percent of all self-harm incidents in prison in England and Wales even though they only represent 5 percent of the prison population.


And statistically speaking, female prisoners are far more likely to be victims than perpetrators. Their offending is more likely to be prompted by their relationships. For example, nearly half of women prisoners reported having committed offences to support someone else's drug use, compared to just 22 percent of male prisoners.

To make matters worse, once women leave prison, their struggle to readjust into society is even harder than their male counterparts. A mere 8 percent of women are likely to have positive employment outcomes when released, compared to 27 percent of men. As such, many female offenders are confronted with rising debt and struggle to access safe housing.

When you take all of the above into account, it becomes obvious that the majority of female inmates require support not retribution. The solutions to their problems lie in the hands of mental health services, domestic violence provision, safe housing, and education, not inside the four iron walls of a prison cell.

The British prison system remains a male institution in every sense of the word. From Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons to the Governor to the screws on the wing, prison is a secure environment that was created by men for men. In turn, the difference in the crimes women commit and the care that they require continues to be ignored.

For this very reason, the recent briefing by the Prison Reform Trust has launched a drive to reduce the number of women in prison. With the help of a £1.2 million [$1.8 million] lottery grant, it urges the courts to increase the number of community sentences dished out for nonviolent crimes and stop imprisoning women who pose no danger to society.

And for those in doubt of the moral arguments, community sentences also make greater economic sense. According to Vicky Pryce—the former cabinet minister who was convicted for perverting the course of justice after taking speeding points for her ex-husband, Chis Huhne—moving just 1,000 women out of jail and giving them a community sentence would save the Ministry of Justice at least £12 million [$18 million] a year. After all, the cost of placing prisoners' children in care is not just psychological. (For the record, Pryce only lasted four days in Holloway before being transferred to an open jail in Kent.)

It goes without saying that subjecting nonviolent women to the penal torment and social stigma of prison does a hell of a lot more harm than good. In disrupting the lives of the most vulnerable in our society and irreparably disrupting maternal bonds, we are in danger of perpetuating a cycle of violence and crime.

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