Women in Prison
It’s International Women’s Day on the 8th March. And so, I wanted to highlight women in custody. I remember going inside a women’s prison for the first time. I stood in the airlock, the holding space between the outside world and the prison. I looked up at the board that showed how many inmates the prison was holding and couldn’t believe it when I saw the roll count for the women and then a separate roll count for their babies.
Until that point, I’d only ever been in men’s prisons. I hadn’t known that pregnant women were kept inside, or that they gave birth in custody. I was horrified that we think incarceration for pregnant women is acceptable. Surely, these women must have done some really bad things if they had to be sent to prison while pregnant?
That, however, is not the case. In 2021, 5011 women were sent to prison. About 600 of them were pregnant.
More women were sent to prison to serve a sentence for theft (72%) than for violence against the person, robbery, sexual offences, drugs, and motoring offences combined.
Theft, so often the offence of the desperate, is a symptom of larger problems in life. Homelessness, drug and alcohol issues, poverty. If these issues were addressed instead, there would be little need to incarcerate so many women.
The women in prison are also often extremely vulnerable. Over half report having suffered domestic violence with 53% of women reporting having experienced emotional, physical or sexual abuse as a child.
More than a third of women (36%) left prison in the year to March 2021 without settled accommodation— more than one in six (18%) were homeless and nearly one in 20 (4%) were sleeping rough on release.
Women who are pregnant are even more vulnerable. In England and Wales, women who give birth in prison can keep their baby for the first 18 months in a mother and baby unit. A prisoner with a child under 18 months old can also apply to bring their child to prison with them. After that, the child is taken away and placed under the care of social services.
A damning report has recently been released about a 31 year old woman who gave birth to a stillborn baby in the toilet of her house block without any specialist care. She had been told by a nurse that she was only experiencing a ‘painful period’.
This followed from the death of a newborn baby in HMP Bronzefield after an 18 year old gave birth in her cell alone. It was her first time in prison. She was on remand. Later, when she returned to court, she was released on bail. This means that she shouldn’t have been in prison in the first place.
So what can we do about this absolute shit show? Thankfully, the organisation Women in Prison, has developed a detailed and well considered manifesto. I’ve included an overview here, but they go into a lot more detail on the website. If you’re horrified by the incarceration of non-violent offenders, pregnant women and vulnerable women I’d recommend checking them out.