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April 21, 2006

Women's prisons are worse places than men's prisons: Emily Kingham explains why

Posted by Emily Kingham

Life in prison is worse for women than for men, argues prison writer-in-residence Emily Kingham. Men often cope with imprisonment by cutting off their emotions; women often become exhibitionists.

Prison bent. Any man I meet on the outside who hears about my job confesses his fear of being imprisoned, and then, in what is to me a non sequiter, his fear of being raped. ("I'm a pretty boy," one bearded, heavy-set man confided – to my amusement). But homosexual rape is not really on the agenda when it comes to things to fear in prison. It does happen but it is rare, thank God. Getting through the first few weeks of imprisonment and the struggle for power between men are the real things to fear.

On first entering a prison, men are taken to the Induction Wing where they are introduced by officers and orderlies (trusted prisoners) to the rules and regulations, their rights, responsibilities and educational opportunities. They are then despatched to wings that do not possess an "Enhanced" category in order to be assessed. If they behave themselves they will be moved to an Enhanced wing. Behaving themselves means possessing the self-control not to take drugs, not to have an attitude problem, fitting in with the regime.

Enhanced prisoners occupy their own wing, they have more association, more visits and are generally more trusted to behave themselves.

For the newly arrived prisoner, life on an ordinary Wing is the real test. It is not something as dramatic as rape that is the issue, but standing up to bullies. One prisoner told me that two prisoners came into his cell one morning wearing balaclavas in an attempt to extort. A new boy has to prove himself, stand up to threats of violence, build a reputation for toughness or at least for adroitly avoiding trouble. That is the real issue for me: you can avoid trouble if you really want to, but men in prison don't always see it that way. When men are banged up together, machismo reigns.

So the issue of homosexuality is not really an issue for men. It is, however, for women. Everyone who works in prisons knows that a lot of women prisoners will go prison bent.

There are 4,393 women in prison this week. Of these 70% have mental health problems; 37% have attempted suicide; 20% have been in care as a child compared to 2% of the general population. At least 50% are victims of childhood abuse or domestic violence. (These figures are from an organisation called Women in Prison.)

These statistics need breaking down. I quote from Women in Prison:

The educational achievement of women prisoners is lower even than for male prisoners. Seventy-four per cent left school at 16 or before. Only 39% have any qualifications at all, compared to 82% of the general population. Forty-one per cent of women prisoners have not worked in the past five years. Sixty-six per cent of sentenced women in prison say they were either drug dependent or drinking to hazardous levels before custody. Women prisoners report much higher levels of physical and psychological health problems than women in the general population. They report very high levels of victimisation through childhood abuse and domestic violence.
Nearly 40% of these women lose their homes as a result of imprisonment, and 65% re-offend on release (this is according to Home Office figures released in December 2005).

Chris Tchaikovsky, former prisoner and founder/director of Women in Prison, argues:

Taking the most hurt people out of society and punishing them in order to teach them how to live within society is, at best, futile. Whatever else a prisoner knows, she knows everything there is to know about punishment because that is exactly what she has grown up with. Whether it is childhood sexual abuse, indifference, neglect; punishment is most familiar to her.
And yet we send these damaged women to institutions where each place costs between £25,000 and £45,000 a year.

I know I couldn't cope with working in a women's prison. Men go into army mode – they get through their bird by cutting off their emotions. In more enlightened institutions they are offered therapeutic interventions which challenge their mind-sets but, on the whole, they are not as raw and desperate as their female counterparts. Imprisonment for a woman challenges her very femininity. We do not expect women to break rules. The stigma is all the greater for them when they do. Bear in mind, the most common offences for which women are sent to prison are theft and handling stolen goods. Not exactly armed burglary, rape or assaults. (Sixteen per cent of women are in prison for violent offences (556 women). Thirty-two per cent of men are in prison for violent or sexual offences (18,313 men).

The reason I couldn't cope is that when women are so emotionally vulnerable they become exhibitionist. They will self-harm in front of you, or they will tell you about slashing themselves or swallowing batteries in lots of gory detail. They are exhibitionist, too in their sexuality. They will kiss and fondle each other in workshops. They will sport lovebites in prominent places. They are sexually aggressive. The need for love and intimacy is there but it becomes distorted into sexual parading. Some women will get themselves arrested for minor offences because they want to be inside on Valentine's Day or over Christmas. They are so desperate for love, and so incapable of maintaining stability in their lives, they would rather be in prison for these holidays. It's heartbreaking.

The women's prison population went up by 173% in the decade to 2004. But prison does not work for them, even less than it does for men (and, in women's cases, it's not about keeping violent offenders off the streets). And I haven't even mentioned the women with dependent children. The best way to cut women's offending is to deal with its root causes.

In 2004 the Government responded to research undertaken by organisations such as Prison Reform Trust and Women in Prison by publishing a Women's Offending Reduction Programme action plan. It aimed to:

strategically link efforts across government to reduce women's offending and to pursue alternatives to custodial sentences for women.
In March 2005 the Home Secretary promised £9.15 million for two pilot community centres. In November 2005 Baroness Scotland announced a "review" of vulnerable women in the criminal justice system. There has been nothing heard since.

What has happened is the opening of two privately run prisons for women. The 450 bed HMP Bronzefield, purpose-designed for women, opened in June 2004 and HMP Peterborough opened in March 2005. These are large institutions, which means that they house women from across the country, taking them far from their families. They are the very opposite of what the Government itself has recommended.

As I outlined in the above introduction to prison life, prison is a concentration of debasement. It is necessarily symptomatic of the system itself rather than the system's "users". In any system where the operational needs of the institution take priority over the needs of the users, the potential is great for direct and indirect abuse to flourish.

We are merely perpetuating the abuse these women have already suffered.

I will leave my closing remarks to those who have direct experience of working with women in prisons:

A network of Women's Supervision, Rehabilitation and Support Centres should be established. As well as the supervision of court orders, the Centres would provide access…to a wide range of services.
Prison Reform Trust, Justice for Women: The Need for Reform, 2000.

We believe there is an urgent need for the establishment nationally of non-custodial provision designed with women’s needs in mind. Such centres offer a real possibility to respond to the needs of female offenders effectively and thus reduce female rates of re-offending.
The Fawcett Society, Women and the Criminal Justice System, 2005.

Emily Kingham is the pseudonym of a writer-in-residence at a Category B prison in South East England. She is a writer and journalist. To read Emily Kingham's previous columns on prison life see Notes from a Prison.


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In more enlightened institutions they are offered therapeutic interventions which challenge their mind-sets...

When you see rebarbative jargon like that on a supposedly conservative website, you know we're doomed.

Posted by: Eli Levy at April 21, 2006 05:38 PM
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Rebarbative, what a marvellous word, and I share Mr Levy's feeling of doom, at least mildly.

Looking over the stats, one cannot help but wonder how many women out of prison share those same characteristics. Hence a bureaucrat on the inside sees a few thousand prisoners with problems that could, perhaps, be addressed institutionally, but does not see the throngs of others outside who may or may never end up in the slammer but whom are far too numerous to treat. After all, the number of stupid, uneducated, vain and perhaps predatory, slightly mad women who are occasionally bullied or beaten up must be quite a few. Apart from not knowing if they have ever been struck, I seem to come across candidates almost all of the time.

Posted by: s masty at April 21, 2006 09:22 PM
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The premise seems fallacious to me. That men handle the troubles better is not evidence that their troubles are less, it's simple evidence that they are capable of handling it better.

I'm all for attempting to find better ways to handle the issues women (or men) face in prison. Certainly I think allowing private instutions to innovate is a welcome step. But I don't think it's responsible to write off the hardships of men simply because they may be better equiped to handle them on the whole.

Posted by: Grst at April 23, 2006 06:34 AM
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To the commentators:

Rebarbative, quotha! The last time I came across this word, it was about 25 years ago, and somebody undoubtedly ignorant of the Chinese language was using it to criticize the Pinyin spelling system. “Therapeutic interventions” does sound rather like med-speak, but what words would you use in their place? If Lord Joffe’s bill goes through, though, maybe the terminology will be extended to “Assisted Dying” (I doubt if Al Capone ever thought of that one!)

Certainly I think allowing private institutions to innovate is a welcome step.

But isn’t the point of the article that for this particular step, the boots seem to have been put on backwards? And judging by her previous articles, I don’t see the author downplaying the hardships of men. Rather, she appears to be saying that for much lesser crimes, women are subjected to a system designed for brutal men. Men and women are different, as St Paul or any primatologist could tell you.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at April 24, 2006 05:06 PM
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I myself have been, in prison i went to risley remand center .It was the most horrid place ive ever been too,when iwas there yps and adults were mixed together .Some terrible things happend to the young girls in there ,what i noticed more than anything is that most of these young people had been in care , or had a bad childhood ie sexual abuse and low self asteam.And the amount of sex that is avaiable in these places is unbelieveable.I my self will never go back again i no longer live in the shit hole you call britain ik heb een neiuw vaderland .I really feel for any one living in such a volient land.But girls look after yourselves because if i can change my life anyone can love an expat who hates englandxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

Posted by: sarah jackson at September 20, 2007 11:08 AM
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Criminals of either gender should be treated indiscriminately of that fact.

Now, if you are going to say that women should undergo a different kind of imprisonment - I disagree.

If a man commits a petty crime, same as a woman, they get the same treatment. Period.

You simply cannot expect that because women apparently experience more 'emotional pain' in prison then men that they should have an easy ride.

Say, women experience more 'emotional pain', however men have different hormones coarsing through them which may cause them to do stupid things. Honestly, it's like saying that different ethnic groups should have their own prisons and that some of them should have rooms full of cushions and televisions.

Posted by: Tobias at December 12, 2007 12:36 PM
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