Sex based differences in experiences within the prison system

Jess Duggan discusses the differing impact of incarceration on women in Britain and argues there are lessons to be learned both in contemporary calls for reform and for a future socialist society.

Jess Duggan, is a member of the YCL’s London District

The result of a criminal justice system that was built by men, for men (Corston, 2007) is that the outcomes of imprisonment are overwhelming more harmful for the women who experience it. To demonstrate this, while women only make up 5% of the UK prison population, 45% of those going into prison in 2015 were on remand (meaning they were awaiting trial) and under half of those women on remand were given a custodial sentence (Prison Reform Trust, 2017, p.3).

This means that to begin with, we are imprisoning women who do not deserve to be there. However, they will still suffer the effects of spending time in prison, as women account for a fifth of all self-harm incidences in prison, 60% of women will have no accommodation to return to upon leaving prison and 61% of those serving short custodial sentences will be reconvicted within a year of release. Imprisoning women in this way is therefore performing very few of the central aims of prison, such as rehabilitation, which would suggest that these women should be leaving prison having treated the factors that make them need to commit crime. However, this doesn’t appear to be the case, as the recidivism rates are so high. Therefore, we should not continue to use ineffective methods of dealing with low level crime, if the outcomes are so poor.

However, another resounding problem within this debate, is the issue of who else deserves differential treatment by the criminal justice system. As women are not the only sub-groups within society whose lives are severely impacted by imprisonment, compared to white men; who the UK penal system was originally built to serve. For example, this may include, disabled people, ethnic minorities or, perhaps, the elderly, who may suffer discrimination or a lack of catering to their needs. In research by the Howard League for Penal reform (2016, p.12) into the quality of care for deaf prisoners, found that disabled prisoners had overall poorer experiences throughout their time in prison and deaf prisoners particularly suffered with isolation, which contributed to poor mental health. However, if we were to decide that some groups within society deserve to be punished in different ways, then it could be said that another one of the main aims of punishment: retribution, is not being fulfilled as there is no consistent punishment for two people different people committing the same crime.

Although, the nature of British society is patriarchal, and thus women still bear the majority of childcare responsibilities within the family (Oakley, 1972), hence women’s imprisonment often has a secondary impact on their children, which does not impact men, or other population groups, to the same degree. This is shown by the fact that 60% of women in prison are mothers, with one fifth of those mothers having been single parents, prior to imprisonment (Prison reform trust, 2017, p.5). The result of this is 17, 240 children becoming separated from their mothers per year, and around 6,000 having no care while their mother is in prison (Prison reform trust, 2017, p.5). Thus, children who are separated from their mothers through imprisonment suffer a great impact, which cannot be understated when considering the disproportionate impact of prison on women’s and men’s lives.

In addition, much of women’s offending is related to poverty and needing to provide for their children, for example, 38% of women who were convicted for theft offences, attributed their offending to this reason (Prison Reform Trust, 2017, p.2). Prison only exacerbates this problem, as women will often lose their jobs or children, which can particularly limit their access to welfare such as child tax benefit.  Therefore, rather than punishing women through prison, intervening with these social factors that relate to offending, would be more effective at dealing with women’s crime. However, as Carlen (2002, p.11) suggested, perhaps the role of caring for children is not a sufficient reason for giving only women differing forms of treatment, as the father’s imprisonment could may well have an equally significant impact on a child’s life chances. As well as this, the responsibility of caring for children should not be entirely placed on the mother, as the father should also be held accountable for the welfare of his children and perhaps by treating women based on their role as caregiver, will only reinforce these outdated sex stereotypes.

However, while we must consider the ways in which the criminal justice system may not serve women, there is an argument that the criminal justice system does not produce good outcomes for men either.  There is evidence to show that reoffending rates are high across all prisons, suggesting that it may not just be punishing women through imprisonment that isn’t working. This is shown in that, nearly 1 in 3 (28%) people who were sentenced to custody, cautioned or received a non-custodial sentence are proven to reoffend. While when this is narrowed down to those who spend 12 months or less in custody (so usually for less serious crimes), the reoffending rate jumps to 2 in 3 (64%) (Office for national statistics, 2017).

Reoffending has been linked with a breakdown of links to personal factors such as employment, financial stability, family stability and mental health, all issues which are made worse by spending time in prison (Grimwood, G. and Berman, G., 2012, p.25). Hence, maybe the issue is a wider one of an inefficiency of treating offenders in general, rather than only certain groups who have vast negative impacts as a result of being processed in the criminal justice system. As while women may experience inferior outcomes from prison compared to men, the actual impact of prison on men is not a positive one either.

Overall, there is an overwhelmingly strong argument for the case that women do not experience positive impacts from spending time in prison. Not only on their own lives, but their children and their economic stability is severely impacted, in a way that is largely incomparable to men’s experiences with punishment. This also comes into question with the importance of upholding central concepts to the criminal justice system, such as the rule of law and equality before the law. However, there is also much evidence to suggest that the overall effectiveness of the criminal justice system can be called into question as well, as outcomes for other disadvantaged groups are poor, as well as generally reoffending rates. So, given this, we must use the evidence presented in this essay to reflect on the functions that prisons should form for a socialist society, and to not allow the injustices women have faced under capitalism, to remain under socialism.

*please note that this essay was written in March of 2019, so the statistics are relevant to this time

Jessica Duggan


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