The UK government is planning on creating 500 more places for women in prison. In response, Sonia Sodha, chief leader writer at the Observer and a Guardian/Observer columnist, has written a powerful piece recommending the phasing out of women’s prisons altogether.
This is absolutely the right objective. The record regarding women and prisons is appalling: the number of women in UK prisons has doubled since 1993 (as if women are twice as bad as they were 27 years ago!); the use of community sentences has halved in a decade; 62% of women serve sentences of less than 6 months (up from 30% in 1993) causing massive disruption to their lives and those of their dependants. The government’s mindless response to this last point is to allow more children to sleep with their mothers in prison.
So yes, for a host of reasons women’s prisons should be done away with.
Interestingly, there is no suggestion in Sodha’s piece that men’s prisons should be done away with too. The reason why women’s prisons should be eliminated while men’s are retained is, she says, because ‘female offenders are very different from their male counterparts’.
How are they different?
First, says Sodha, men are ‘far more violent than women, and always have been’. This is absolutely true. ‘Prison sentences are most appropriate for dangerous and violent crime’, she continues. So because men commit the ‘vast majority’ of violent crime, men’s prisons must be retained.
But a 2019 report by the Prison Reform Trust shows that 69% of the 59,000 people sent to prison in 2018 had committed a non-violent offence. Some of these will have been women, but given that ‘only’ 5% of the people in prison in the UK are women, the vast majority of these non-violent offences will have been carried out by men.
So on Sodha’s criterion that prison should be reserved for violent criminals, two-thirds of men’s prisons should be closed down too.
A second reason she gives for why female offenders are different to their male counterparts is that ‘two-thirds of women in prison are survivors of domestic abuse’, and that while ‘not every female criminal is a victim … coercive abusive relationships can serve to draw women into crime’. This is also absolutely true and it’s a chilling reminder that behind many crimes lie stories of damaged lives.
But if a history of damage and disadvantage is a reason for an offender’s decarceration then perhaps this applies to histories other than those of abusive relationships too?
For example, 62% of people entering prison have a reading age of 11 or lower (four times greater than the general population). Similarly, a third of people (34%) assessed in prison in 2017–18 reported that they had a learning disability or difficulty. Low literacy leads to non/underemployment and a potential turn to crime for survival. And these statistics are themselves a reflection of profound structural disadvantage.
Just as not every female criminal is a victim, as Sodha says, not everyone with a low reading age or learning disability ends up in prison. But in both cases the chances of eventual imprisonment are increased. So once again, if a history of harm leads us to conclude that women’s prisons should be shut down, should not the same criterion be applied to men’s?
While Sodha is right about the specifics of the differences between female and male offenders (the former’s non-violent crimes are different to those of the latter, as is the nature of the harm they suffer that predisposes them to imprisonment), they share the key features that Sodha says should lead to the phase out - or at least a reduction in the number - of prisons: non-violent crime and a history of harm.
I very much hope that women’s prisons are phased out, or at the very least that the government’s plans to increase the number of places for women are abandoned, never to return.
And once that happens I look forward to Sodha turning her fire on incarceration in general, for there is more in the arguments that unite the genders against imprisonment than keeps them apart.