Caroline O’Keefe, speaking as a Criminal Justice Voice at the Barrow Cadbury Trust, argues that we need a new gender, equality, and social justice lens for criminal justice rhetoric if it is to truly address the issues which lead to women’s offending.
Improving the lives of women and girls in the criminal justice system will involve more than “new rehabilitation techniques and smarter ways of managing prisoners” as was suggested by David Cameron in his recent prison reform speech.
Listening, understanding, validating, valuing and holding hope for women when they can’t hold it for themselves may be more compelling ways of making a difference, according to debates among practitioners and academics at a conference at Sheffield Hallam last week. Undoubtedly, for the most serious and dangerous female offenders, imprisonment may be an appropriate and necessary response. However, this is a minority group within the current prison population and we need to be mindful that experiences of trauma (often as a result of relationships) feature strongly in many women’s pathways into crime.
The experiences of mothers in prison
The experience of imprisonment can ‘re-traumatise’ women by separating them from their children and requiring them to ‘fit in’ with a system which has been designed for men. At the conference, a former prisoner described how the allotted time for phone calls home was between 3 and 4 in the afternoon, precisely the time when children would be walking back from school so not at home to take the call. She also described how she was rushed into making a decision about whether to apply to keep her baby with her in a Mother and Baby Unit during her prison sentence and how prison staff ‘advised’ that her baby may be better off being cared for in the community.
We heard about one woman who had been returned to prison after giving birth to her baby and put in a cell without being given sanitary towels, another who was placed in segregation, just a few weeks after giving birth. Given the dehumanising nature of these experiences, it’s clear that a crucial element of support for women in conflict with the law should be for this harm to be repaired by creating new, nurturing relationships which offer hope for a different way of relating, as women attempt to build a better future for themselves and their children.
What’s needed and what’s missing?
For example, key workers in women’s community centres and staff in prison Mother and Baby Units can provide positive templates for healthy relationships. Interventions which foster connection and communication between imprisoned mothers and their children are also essential. But it’s not just these interpersonal relationships which matter but also the relationship which society has with women in conflict with the law. What we ‘do with’ women lawbreakers needs to be considered in the context of how women’s lives (and inter alia their experiences of prison) are different from men’s.
David Cameron’s proposal for increasing the use of community sentences for women offenders (especially those with young children) is welcome. However, what’s missing is an explicit recognition that women who commit crime are often already traumatised by their experiences as victims of crime, particularly domestic and sexual assault at the hands of men. For some women, prison is the best home they’ve ever had and, in a shocking indictment of the systems which are meant to protect women, the safest place they’ve ever known. Thus a commitment to addressing the violence and abuse of women and girls, including preventative measures as well as responsive ones, is a serious omission in his proposals.
Creating a positive future
As the primary care-givers of children women are disadvantaged in the workplace which means that women in conflict with the law have limited opportunities for creating more positive futures for themselves. And policy drive in criminal justice has a strong male bias. So I wonder if, as the Government considers its ideas for “full-on prison reform”, is it not about time that wider issues of inequality and social injustice (and the gendered nature of these) become a key part of criminal justice rhetoric?