Before you interject that my proposal is discriminatory, I would give up women’s imprisonment and set that up as a template for doing pretty much the same thing for men. Only those people who are convicted of extremely serious and violent offences and who represent a continuing danger should be in custody.
There are, however, differences between men and women that make abolition of the women’s imprisonment a much easier step to take.
Women’s offending is different. Very few women commit serious and violent crimes and their offending tends to be nuisance rather than dangerous. This is reflected in sentencing in that the majority of women are sent to prison by magistrates for a few weeks or months. Whilst there are more than 13,000 men serving life, there are only a couple of hundred women.
Secondly, women are more often primary carers of either children or other family members. Sending them to prison is hugely disruptive and damaging to family cohesion and child development.
Women respond differently to incarceration. They tend to take their fear and misery out on themselves in self-injury whereas men are more likely to lash out. Prisons compound this by punishing women for misbehaviour in prisons more harshly, thereby forcing them into increased self-harm rather than permitting an outward expression of anguish through, for example, swearing at an officer.
There is a network of 50 women’s centres across the country that provide specialist wrap-around support for women and there is nothing like this for men. The centres provide services to women at risk and women in the community as well as women who are sentenced to community orders and specified activities by the courts. Their funding comes from a patchwork of sources, including health, local authority, drug services and donations. This means they have cooking lessons, debt counselling, domestic abuse services and the wide range of kindly support that leads to desistance.
Imagine if we closed all the women’s prisons and re-allocated the funding – something like £150 million a year. The women’s centres would be properly resourced and we could spend money on crime prevention with women who are identified as being at risk of offending. And we could save some.
I give you my word there would not be a crime explosion. On the contrary, we would prevent generational criminality as well as turning round the lives of the women who are in prison now with no prospects and no hope.
In the end, we would save lives. Too many women have taken their own lives in prisons. The bloodbath that is the women’s prison estate is a scar on the nation. Get rid of it.