In January 2015, there were 3,807 women in prison in England and Wales, mostly for non-violent offences, such as property theft and those related to drugs. The impact of a spell behind bars on women and their families is huge. Over each year, around 18,000 children will be separated from their mothers because of prison. The impact on them can be catastrophic, and they haven’t even committed a crime.
Dr Anna Motz has spent much of her working life treating female offenders. She says that many women arrive in prison having been abused themselves, and one reaction to imprisonment is self-harm. In 2014/15, women accounted for a quarter of the incidents of self-harm in prison, despite representing just 5 per cent of the prison population overall. In 2011/12, the rate was even higher – women were involved in a third of all self-harm incidents.
Incidents include women pulling out their stitches or trying to disembowel themselves; one woman even bit off her own flesh and spat it at people. “Anything can become a weapon,” Motz says, “so one response is to take everything away, but that can recreate an abusive response because the woman feels she is stripped bare.
I feel more frightened of the women – there is a level of intimacy that is more palpable and visceral.
“Self-harm is not just about the woman – it is aggressive and very distressing to the staff,” Motz says. “It is a very violent protest, a way of making people feel as disgusting as you do, as hopeless as you do, as assaulted by indigestible bits of experience and pain.”
For Motz, women in prison evoke more emotional responses in her than men. “I have felt more frightened of the women because there is a level of intimacy and emotional aliveness that is more palpable and visceral and disturbing as a woman. There is an identification there.”
Marian Partington has observed the same thing. She talks in both men’s and women’s prisons about her sister’s torture and murder at the hands of Fred and Rosemary West. “Prisons can be very violent places,” Marian says. “The women’s prisons feel much more chaotic… When I told my story I felt much less safe emotionally. I didn’t have a sense of how it would be received. There wasn’t the attentive respect I had in the men’s prisons.” She sensed a lack of trust between the women prisoners, which she felt directed towards her too.
She puts the different responses down, in part, to the trauma and harm that many women have experienced before they arrive in prison. She remembers one woman looking at her, her face frozen with trauma. “Later she wrote more than anyone else about her relationship with her partner and how her children were taken away because she was violent,” Marian says.
But given that most women offenders commit non-violent crimes, should so many women even be in prison? Following the deaths of six women at Her Majesty’s Prison Styal in Cheshire between 2002 and 2003, Baroness Jean Corston was asked to write a report about vulnerable women in the criminal justice system.
Published in 2007, the Corston Report contains 43 recommendations for improving the way women are treated in the criminal justice system. One recommendation is that “custodial sentences for women must be reserved for serious and violent offenders who pose a threat to the public”. Others include that larger prisons should be replaced with smaller units, that any site where women are imprisoned should be clean and hygienic, and that strip-searching should be reduced to the absolute minimum required for security.
Frances Heidensohn, Visiting Professor in Sociology at the London School of Economics and an expert in criminology and gender, believes that the Corston Report and forthcoming changes, including the closure of the women’s prison HMP Holloway in London, present an opportunity to do something different. She suggests that reducing the imprisonment of women could be used as a ‘pioneer experiment’ to reduce the imprisonment of all offenders. The closure of Holloway, she says, “could be a way of doing good, an unexpected blessing”.
In the UK and Republic of Ireland, the Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. In the USA, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-TALK.