Women Prisoners: An Experience of Crime & Punishment
"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."
Chris Tchaikovsky - Former prisoner and founder of Women in Prison
There's always a trigger for submissions such as this one. This is mine:
Published today, it charts the issue of "whole-life" or the proposed "100-year" tariffs for those convicted of 'heinous' crimes. According to the Independent's piece, backed up by a male prisoner's tale, this is what happens:
"Dr Liebling has a chilling formulation for the effect on a prisoner of the decision to lock them up for ever, hence abandoning any gesture towards rehabilitation: they stop being people, she says, and become "sites of physical danger"."
Well, that may be true for men but it doesn't hold true for women.
It's problematic to talk about women prisoners with whole life tariffs because there have only been two and one of those - Myra Hindley - died in 2002. So I can only be talking about Rosemary West.
I met Rosemary West when I was a prisoner in both HMP Durham & HMP Low Newton. The woman I knew bears no resemblance to the prisoner mindset described by Dr. Liebling. Instead, in my own opinion, Rosemary resembles the descriptions of Baroness Corston about women she encountered in prison:
"I found that offending on the part of women was often triggered by sexual and violent victimisation. What was absolutely extraordinary was the incidence and degree of abuse which women who were in prison had suffered. Over half admit to having experienced some form of abuse. To a startling extent, these women have experienced sexual abuse in childhood, which leaves them with not only a total lack of self-confidence but a lack of a sense of self-worth because, of course, like most victims they blame themselves."
I'm not going to elaborate on how I came to my opinion about Rosemary because I don't have her free-and-informed-consent to do so and this is vital for any discussion about her. The abuse she experienced on the way in to prison has continued ever since because she has become a 'cash-cow' for every misogynistic tabloid editor on the planet. The repercussions of this parasitic behaviour fall not just on Rosemary, but all those who are connected with her. I know because I've experienced it. I've also experienced the difficulty everyone seems to have in seeing her as a woman-with-very-serious-problems because the 'Wicked Witch' framework is such an easy and socially-acceptable perspective to take, even amongst other women prisoners.
It is worth, however, starting with 'the worst of women prisoners' because the Criminal Justice system's attitude towards us tends to be far nastier. Take, for example, the 'lifer' with her own history of child-sex-abuse (NB: a lifer is someone serving a Life Sentence), whose crime was to finally defend herself during the SEVENTH rape inflicted on her by a husband she was trying to leave. The husband died and the tabloids had a field day of misogynistic hatred when her case came to court. The woman I met also bore no resemblance to newspaper reports - she was a victim long before she ever married. The stories of women like her in prison are too numerous to mention in a short piece like this but it holds true for me too. My offence, a violent one and my first (at age 48), occurred after a long period of social harassment which included physical assault on more than one occasion. Any woman who has been in such a situation over a prolonged period may know the thought-processes which occur in us. Speaking personally, the situation 'drove' me into believing that the only available language left for me to use was that of violence because I'd tried everything else and failed. Our choice seems to boil down to defiance of or compliance with our abusers - either way, if the Police become involved, there's every chance the woman, already a victim, winds up in prison if she doesn't wind up dead. If the woman's crime is violence, she can expect a much heavier 'punishment' than male offenders. The Criminal Justice System 'does not approve' of our much rarer women's crime of violence and it shows in our sentencing.
Baroness Corston described prison as a system designed by men for men. The results, for many abused women who end up inside, look like this:
Let's be clear here, on the subject of self-harm in women's prisons: Women make up 5% of ALL prisoners in the UK but account for HALF of the self-harm statistics for the WHOLE prison estate. These statistics remain largely unchanged since I went into prison in 2003 and, for some women, their experience ends up looking like this:
Year after year, the reports come back the same:
"Reading the New Hall report was like stepping back in time, as if Corston had not happened. Inspectors found responses to women whose behaviour caused concern were "excessively punitive", with too little attempt to tackle the underlying causes of their behaviour. They found women being forcibly strip-searched and having their clothing cut off. One woman arrived in clothes that were not allowed at New Hall. She refused to hand them over and was held down while the offending garments were sliced off her. The report says there was "no attempt to resolve the issue in other ways". Some of the most damaged women were routinely placed in the segregation unit for "good order and discipline", it found, with, again, inadequate efforts to address the causes of their distress and manage their behaviour constructively."
That last report was written by a man - as many prison stories are - but I can confirm the reality of it because I spent 9 months on remand in HMP New Hall's Segregation Unit in 2003. The story rings true because clearly nothing much has changed in 9 years even after Corston.
There is, however, yet another hurdle women prisoners have to overcome. The moment the subject of violence comes up in relation to women prisoners, even Corston throws away the key. The reasons for women becoming violent are, more often than not, very different from men, yet even she fails to recognise this. There are women who present a very real danger to the public but they are very few in number and they are not representative of many women imprisoned for violent offences!
Nevertheless, Corston concluded that 80% of women shouldn't be in prison; a view shared by the best male Governor-in-Charge I ever met & who worked in the men's high-security HMP Frankland. So how well has the CJS done since The Corston Report was largely accepted by government?
Corston gave a ten-year timetable for closing down the women's prison estate and replacing them with small local secure units - that was seven years ago. Whilst there has been success in diverting women from prison, little or nothing has been done for those who remain inside... apart from, for example, the government closing down the ONLY prison offering therapeutic support to women prisoners (HMP Send). At present, the MoJ is increasing hardship of all prisoners through staff cuts (women prisoners are known to NEED a higher level of interpersonal support in prison because their problems are so complex), coupled with harsher conditions based upon a mindset that is designed by men for men and where the reality of women prisoners barely even registers.
With no exit in sight and with a baseline reflected in all the reports linked into this submission, it's not hard to guess what is likely to happen to women prisoners now!
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