'This House believes that women should not be sent to prison'

Richard Garside
Thursday, 2 March 2006

Some years ago the criminologist Andrew Rutherford made a habit of explaining to magistrates the consequences of their decisions.

It was of course for them decide whether to sentence boys and young men to a period of imprisonment, he would tell them. But they should be aware that in doing so they were in effect sentencing them to buggery.

As we consider the motion before us this evening, we should remember Andrew Rutherford's challenge. For when debating the rights and wrongs of prison it is easy to view imprisonment merely as the logical outcome of a chain of events that starts with an individual deciding to break the law. In doing so we allow ourselves to believe that imprisonment is a natural, a normal, indeed a reasonable, response to criminal acts that are themselves neither natural, nor normal, nor reasonable. In doing so we also relieve ourselves of the responsibility of engaging seriously with the problems afflicting those who end up in our prisons. And in doing so we confuse the ideological claims made about prison with the functional role played by prison in a society such as ours today.

So as we consider the motion before us this evening, let us be clear of the effect of sending women to prison.

A prison sentence is for some women a sentence to death by suicide. For many other women it is a sentence to repeated suicide attempts and to regular bouts of self-harm. A prison sentence is for some women a sentence to prolonged periods of mental distress, to despair, to anxiety and to loneliness. A prison sentence is for some women a sentence on their children and families too. For their children a sentence to long periods without their mothers. For their families a sentence to financial and emotional hardship. A prison sentence, in short, inflicts pain. It is a form of cruelty. A cruelty sanctioned and organised by the state.

Let us be clear also upon whom these acts of cruelty are inflicted. For those women who end up in our prisons are anything but a representative cross-section of women in society at large.

More than half of women in our prisons have little or no educational qualifications. A significant number suffer from serious drug- and alcohol-related problems. A majority are living with a diagnosable mental health problem. A disturbing number have been the victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse. Much of this sexual abuse will have been inflicted upon them as children.

What we have in our prisons is a group of mostly poor, marginalised, traumatised, vulnerable and needy individuals.

So those who argue that imprisoning women is an appropriate, a civilised, a defensible activity must also accept the implications of such a position. It means assenting to, and through their support being complicit in, the infliction of pain and suffering on some of the most vulnerable members of our society.

Now this is a serious claim to make, and one unlikely to endear me those who consider women's imprisonment to be necessary or appropriate. To substantiate this point, let us be clear about why women are imprisoned.

The simple answer is that women are imprisoned because they have committed a crime for which they have been found guilty in a court of law. Imprisonment, in this sense, is selective not arbitrary. It is the logical conclusion of a clear criminal process, not the random act of a capricious or oppressive state. There is much truth in this answer. The process by which an individual ends up in a British prison is mostly clear and subject to due process in a way that was not the case for the inmates of a Soviet gulag or indeed for today's prisoners in Guantanamo Bay. But this answer also masks as much as it reveals. It does not explain why those women who make up the prison population are so unrepresentative of women as a whole. And it assumes the very thing that needs to be examined and explained: why it is that imprisonment should be considered a natural, a normal, a reasonable response to crime and criminality.

Some will argue that poor and marginalised women are more likely to end up in prison precisely because it is they who commit the most crime. This, more or less, is the view of the government and of opposition parties. It is also wrong. A drug dependant pauper might thieve or deal to fund her habit. Here her disadvantage might reasonably be related to her criminality. But what of the stockbroker who fleeces her clients, the housewife who pads her home insurance claim, or the businesswoman who sells her customers inferior goods? It should not surprise us that our police, our courts and our prisons will more likely process the drug dependant pauper than the others. For it is towards such people that their gaze is largely directed. But it would be an elementary mistake to make bold assertions about the nature of crime and criminality based on the characteristics of those individuals who end up in our prisons. This would be akin to drawing conclusions about the health needs of Cambridge residents based on a spot check of accident and emergency patients on a Friday night.

Let us be clear about why prison and the criminal justice agencies target some women, and some offences, and not others. Prisons, as places of confinement, have existed for centuries. But their scale of use was akin to a cottage industry. Prisons as we know them today, as places of mass incarceration, are very recent. Their origins lie in the mid-nineteenth century, and are related to the historical processes of the rise of industrial capitalism and the growth of the large industrial cities. The origins of the modern police force lie in the same period.

So there is nothing natural or normal about the use of imprisonment as a mainstream response to crime. There is nothing natural about the use of imprisonment as a response to women's criminality. Indeed as recently as ten years ago around half as many women were in prison as are in prison today. For most of its history Britain has not relied on imprisonment as a mainstream response to crime, or as a means of achieving and maintaining social order. To assume that prisons should and will be a feature of British society in the future is to demonstrate a profoundly inadequate historical and political vision. Yet prison is used today as a response to crime and as a means to maintain social order, and this requires some explanation. So let us be clear about why prison is used in this way.

Prison is used because our social and economic arrangements are so structured as to make it systematically impossible to deal adequately with the kinds of social and psychological stresses resulting from a society in which a third of children currently grow up in poverty; a society in which male violence towards and domination over women is an accepted social fact. Marginalised, victimised and traumatised women end up in our prisons because no one was there to help and support them when they were traumatised and victimised children, or marginalised and vulnerable teenagers, or distressed and disturbed women.

The criminal acts that ultimately led to their being imprisoned are but the end point of a long chain of decisions and events that largely were not of their making. They are in prison because others took the decision that imprisonment is an appropriate response to a convergence of events that resulted in a crime being committed.

Prisons exist because we as a society have decided that we do not want to think seriously about the deep causes of those behaviours that we chose to call 'crime'. The decision to imprison is a political decision, made by people that we, our parents and our grandparents have elected.

The decision to do away with prison is likewise a political decision we are all in a position to make. It is a decision that there can and should be more civilised, more humane, more effective and more rational social responses to crime and criminality. It is to decide that we can develop better ways of dealing with those individuals who might pose a threat to others. And that locking them in a small room with a small window and a toilet in the corner in no way is an adequate or humane response.

It is a decision that we should make about prison as a whole, and not just women in prison. For much of what I have said could equally apply to those men and children in our prisons system. And it is a decision that involves thinking on a much bigger terrain than that which is occupied by the prison. It challenges us think seriously about we organise our social and economic relationships, about the way that we care for and protect the vulnerable and the weak.

So as we consider the motion before us this evening, let us be clear about the nature of the discussion we are having and the nature of the decision we will shortly be taking.