Incidents of self-harm of female prisoners increased by 50% over the last five years. There have been 115 deaths of women prisoners in the last 17 years in prisons in England. These figures should shock – they are a sign that the way the criminal justice system currently treats women offenders should not and cannot go on.
Imprisonment of female offenders has doubled over the last ten years with a current population of 4,430. There has been no corresponding increase in female offending according to official statistics – so this means that sentencing has increased up the scale (from non-custodial to custodial and from shorter to longer sentences). 9 out of 10 female offenders in prison did not commit a violent offence, the most common being handling stolen goods.
Most people imprisoned suffer from mental health disorders, reading through comments about some of the tragedies that happen you see that self-harm and suicidal incidents have points where they could have been prevented. I think it’s clear that if these people need to be in some sort of secure facility, then it needs to be one that can help them deal with the mental health problems rather than exacerbate them. I think one final point about this needs to be made – prison officers are not able to deal with mental health problems and they should really be expected to – whilst I hope they can make the best of the appalling situation they are and try and prevent more incidents, they are simply not able to deal with these situations.
But what to do instead of this current situation? I think it is painfully clear that this level of imprisonment cannot continue. Several groups call for the abolition of prison for women, and indeed extend this to the abolition of prison generally. However, I’m not sure if this stand is correct. Firstly, what do you do with all of those people- what alternative sentence should they get? But secondly, and much more important I think, it doesn’t challenge the control of the criminal justice system by the capitalist class. The only real democratic input into the system comes from jury trials, and even then of pretty much limited to ‘guilty or not guilty’, the sentence is done by an appointed judge. This I think is what needs challenging, the community should be the ones that decide the sentence after hearing all the facts.
More fundamentally necessary is an entire reorientation of the criminal justice system – it should be geared towards the eradication of crime, but the solution to such a problem goes way beyond the criminal justice system, we need a society that doesn’t cause such widespread mental heath problems and isn’t criminogenic.