Empowering women and resisting injustice: why I signed the call to action

Martine Lignon
Tuesday, 9 September 2014

'Hitherto, philosophers have [only] sought to interpret the world; the point, now, is to change it.'

If it had not been so used and abused, Marx’s injunction could, with very little alteration, serve as an introduction to the Centre’s Justice Matters for Women's  ‘call to action’. Hitherto, successive Home Office’s and Ministries of Justice  - prompted by an array of voluntary and community sector organisations from the penal reform and ‘women’ sectors - have collected and compiled innumerable statistics, data, testimonies, case studies, etc., that all evidence the catastrophic and costly consequences stemming from the imprisonment of women.

The point now is to radically reduce the number of women incarcerated, and, ultimately, abolish women’s prisons as we know them.

The point now is to act on what is known. That is why this ‘call to action’ is both warmly welcome and so urgent. It is aptly designed to assist in the vital (literally vital) transformation of the way the criminal justice system treats women caught up in it.

Daily reports in the media present us with evidence that the most horrific crimes, ranging from sexual exploitation in Rotherham to the depredations of Boko Haram in Nigeria and those of the militant group the Islamic State (Isis), are committed not by women but on women and girls.

At a time when politicians and celebrities join forces to describe organised sexual violence in conflict zones as, 'one of the great mass crimes of the 20th century and the 21st century', it is no longer tolerable to ignore the category of gendered harm.

Why should this recognition not inform the way society (not just the criminal justice system) responds to ‘women’s offending’? Clearly, prison harms men as well as women but in different ways. The difference between ‘social visits’ in male and female prisons (as I often witnessed when visiting Pentonville and Holloway) is clear for all to see... 

The reference to Marx may, in fact, prove more appropriate than it initially seemed. . . 'A key lesson still to be learnt is that tackling women’s offending is not just a matter for the justice system', stated the House of Commons Justice Committee in 2013. By which they meant the criminal justice system. They could (indeed, should) have added, ‘it is a matter of and for social justice’.

This is one of the many reasons why the Centre and Women in Prison’s call for action is so appropriate. Systematically articulating issues for (rather than of) criminal justice with an analysis of gendered social inequalities, positions the need for penal reform within wider demands for social justice, the Centre is ideally placed to take the challenge to politicians, while considerably widening its range of respondents. In his article Criminal Justice versus Social Justice, Dr Paul O’Mahony argues that,

...criminal justice policy both through sins of commission (mainly in sentencing and the treatment of offenders) and omission (mainly in failing to target the harms committed by the powerful and the privileged), often undermines social justice. […] the most important fact about [such a] penal system is that it adds to the stock of social injustice […] rather than reducing it. Although he is specifically referring to the Irish penal system, his admonition could justifiably be extended to that of the UK, particularly to its treatment of women.

As well as being appropriate, this call is urgent. With the Transforming Rehabilitation programme that institutes ‘supervision’ for all ‘offenders’ with an under-12-month custodial sentence – the majority of incarcerated women – the risk of breach and ensuing recall is obvious. Given the current ‘state of the estate’, this will lead inexorably to a situation that is impossible even to contemplate.

The empowerment of women and resistance to injustice are one and the same. Act now!

Martine Lignon is a Trustee of Women in Prison and is Chair of the Prisoners Advice Service. This comment piece was written in response to a call to action to Empower women, resist injustice and transform lives, issued by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, in collaboration with Women in Prison. To read and support the call to action please click here. You can find out why others are supporting this call here.