A woman's place is not in prison

Richard Garside
Friday, 29 October 2021

Outside, a small group of trans activist bullies hurled racist and misogynistic abuse at the audience as it arrived.

Inside, hundreds of people, mostly women, many new to the subject, met to discuss women's imprisonment, in an event co-organised, earlier this week, by Woman's Place UK and the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, and chaired by the barrister Allison Bailey.

Opening the event, Charlie Weinberg, the Centre's chair of trustees, reminded us that when it comes to women's imprisonment, sex matters. For example, a high proportion of both male and female prisoners have head injuries, she told us. But in the case of female prisoners, these are disproportionately the result of domestic violence by an intimate partner; something that is not true of male prisoners.

Frances Crook, about to retire as Chief Executive of the Howard League, called for the abolition of imprisonment of women. Last year, she pointed out, only two women were sentenced to prison for over two years. There were, at most, a handful of women who might need to be held in secure settings on the grounds of public safety.

Lucy Baldwin of De Montfort University spoke movingly about the scandal of the imprisonment of pregnant women and those with young children. In 2021, she said, we have women giving birth to dead babies in prison cells. I have worked in criminal justice for over twenty years. I found Lucy's talk in particular difficult and painful to listen to.

The actress, Frances Barber, read out a series of short testimonies from serving and former female prisoners. "We are not 'cis'," said one. "We are just women defending ourselves. Trans women should not be in women's prisons. We won't be bullied by trans women or their supporters. I stand in solidarity with my sisters".

Jo Phoenix of the Open University, and one of the Centre's trustees, said that imprisoned women were often sentenced according to the courts' assessment of them as mothers, wives, sisters and daughters. And she took head on the claim that to oppose the housing of male prisoners who identify as women in women's prisons makes one guilty of transphobia. It was about prioritising women's needs and rights, Jo said, something that the prison service systematically fails to do.

The Labour MP Rosie Duffield reminded us that most imprisoned women come from backgrounds of violence, abuse and poverty. It should not be a radical position in 2021, she said, to want to stop women being imprisoned for being poor.

Closing the event, Cátia Freitas of Woman's Place argued that sex matters for women because it is on the basis of sex, not gender identity, that women's bodies and labour are appropriated, and on the basis of sex that women are discriminated against. "We will win", she said.

I think she's right. The compassion and unity in the room was an antidote to the anger and divisiveness of the protestors outside. But more than that, it was another sign of a renewed and growing women's liberation movement, spearheaded by organisations such as Woman's Place UK and FiLiA, FairPlay for Women and Keep Prisons Single Sex.

My colleague Helen Mills and I will be discussing the sigificance of this event next week, in the latest edition of our regular review of criminal justice: 'Last month in criminal justice'. We'll be joined by one of the speakers, Jo Phoenix, and by Hannah Quirk from King's College London.

I hope to see you there.