How The British Prison System Fails Women


How The British Prison System Fails Women

Guest blog by Gemma Hewson  

The recent campaign to see transwoman Tara Hudson moved from an all-male prison to the female equivalent, and the tragic death of another transwoman, Vicky Thompson, in a similar situation [1] have brought gender issues within prisons to the forefront of the British consciousness. This is well overdue, as Women in Prison research shows, 100 women have died in custody since 2002 [2]. Sad to say, the situation within Britain is far from equal when it comes to justice and criminality. Women are getting a raw deal – one which often goes unnoticed.

Prison Does Not Work

The overwhelming evidence shows that prison simply does not work as a rehabilitative tool [3]. Even the staunchest advocates of the prison system would agree with this. It can, however, be argued that prison is useful as a device to keep violent and dangerous criminals off the streets. However, an astonishing 80% [4] of British female inmates are imprisoned for relatively minor, nonviolent crimes which – with male felons – are usually treated with a community service order. Furthermore, many of these women find themselves in the position of criminality after years of being let down by state services, and often having suffered significant amounts of abuse at the hands of parents, carers, and/or partners. Of course, the same is true of many (if not most) male inmates. The difference is that male inmates are generally treated as though they are far less responsible for their actions than their female counterparts, and given more lenient sentences. It is not uncommon for a woman to be sent straight to prison for a relatively minor first offence, while a man would be fined or ordered to do community service for the same kind of thing. Why?

Making An Example

A lot of this probably has to do with the way in which society views women. Men are expected to have a ‘bad boy’ streak in them. We are accustomed to chuckling and turning a blind eye as little boys punch each other in the playground. If little girls start doing it, however, we rush in and drag them away, all admonition and anger. The same applies to the British justice system. In a society which expects certain standards from females (but not from males), the ‘bad’ women must be punished, while the ‘bad boy’ is merely acting according to his nature and can thus be granted a greater degree of clemency. Criminal women must be made an example of [5]. Female criminals are not treated within their own context. They are not seen as the human individuals that they are, but as worryingly aberrant aspects of society’s idea of femininity as a whole. Not only are they transcending the written laws of society, they are transcending the unwritten laws of gender. No matter that their crime is relatively minor, no matter that, were a man to commit it, it would not be considered a jailable offence – a women committed it, and this means that the punishment must be higher. We should count ourselves lucky in a way – this attitude is much more pronounced and results in far worse atrocities in the USA [6] – but just because somebody else is worse does not mean that we should not try to improve our own system.

What To Do?

There are many who have pointed out problems with the women’s prison system. Quite apart from the rampant unfairness of the sentencing, the whole vexed issue of motherhood for inmates is a heart-wrenching and deeply unfair one [7]. However, a lot of this could be rectified if we would simply start giving women punishments proportional to their crimes – in the same manner that male criminals are. Of course, the matter of proportionality greatly depends upon the opinion of the individual judge, but if legislators were more aware of the tendency to impose greater punishments on women for lesser crimes, might this not eventually percolate through to the judicial consciousness? Some have suggested abolishing women’s prisons altogether [8], as the inmates do not usually pose a major risk to society. Truly dangerous women could be housed in wings of ‘men’s’ prisons, and the others could be given community service. This may seem an extreme measure, but it does help to highlight the true facts of the matter: the majority of female prisoners are not violent, and their crimes are not serious. Had a man been tried in their place, statistics show that he would likely have escaped incarceration. Isn’t it time the world was more aware of this?

[1] BBC, “Transgender prison death: Peers back reform”, Nov 2015

[2] Women in Prison, Research: Key Facts

[3] BBC, “A Point Of View: Prisons Don’t Work”, Oct 2011

[4] Prison Reform Trust, “Transforming Lives – Reducing Women’s Imprisonment 2015-2018”

[5] Maya Oppenheim, “How the British Prison System Fails Female Criminals”, Vice, Aug 2015

[6] Jennifer Talley, “Context Matters: The Impact of Trauma, Culture and Policy on Women’s Health”,, Apr 2015

[7] Paul Vallely, “Mothers & prison: Babies behind bars”, The Independent, Sept 2012

[8] BBC, “Women’s prisons should close, says justice taskforce”, Jun 2011

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