‘Why I believe too many women are in prison’

Injustice: women dressed as prisoners on a protest march in London © Getty Images

Jailing so many women is a costly and counterproductive waste. Causing much more damage to society than the alternatives, it is the legacy of an archaic, male-dominated justice system.

In 2012 my ex-husband and I were charged with perverting the course of justice and so began many months of legal proceedings. I admitted accepting penalty points on my driving licence for a driving offence that was committed by my ex-husband, but I pleaded not guilty on the grounds of marital coercion.

After the long and painful pre-trial hearings, and after the collapse of the first trial and the guilty verdict of the second, I went first to Holloway, then to open prison in East Sutton Park.

It is said that just a few days in Holloway is all you need to understand the flaws of the current regime towards offenders. I spent two months in prison and it was enough to give me a feel.

The system is broken and a major rethink needs to take place. The evidence for this is set out in detail in my new book*. It is absurd that as crime goes down we put more people in jail at a huge cost to society when money is tight and there is a public deficit to deal with. But no matter what the service did and how fair it tried to be in its treatment of prisoners, it was obvious to me that there were too many people behind bars — especially women.

Britain is poorly served by an anachronistic, archaic network of male judges who send far too many women to prison. The women I met had rarely, if ever, caused serious damage to others and pose no threat to society.

There is overwhelming evidence that the children of prisoners suffer from being separated from their parents. And those who lose parental contact entirely or end up in care have a much higher chance of offending themselves than children who stay close to their families, particularly (but not exclusively) to their mothers.

The direct short-term and indirect long-term economic costs are great. The despair of many of the women I met in my brief stay in prison was heart-breaking. What gave them hope was the prospect of being reunited with their families and being able to obtain a job that would allow them to return to society and care for their children.

There are alternatives to prison. Community service for women or other types of non-custodial sentences that still require the offender to fulfil all sorts of conditions would seem to make a huge amount of sense from every possible angle — costs, links with family and community, work — and would reduce reoffending in many cases.

My journey into the world of women in prison was never intended. But what happened happened. I have learned far more about how the state apparatus works than I knew from my time in government. Sadly, the higher up the hierarchy you go the more uncaring powerful people can be. I found those at the bottom, the prisoners, the prison staff, the marvellous people who campaign for reform and help with reintegration, to have warmth, humanity and sheer British decency.

If I can help persuade one person in power to understand why sending so many women to prison is a counterproductive waste, my sentence will have served its purpose.

*Prisonomics — Behind Bars in Britain’s Failing Prisons by Vicky Pryce is published this week by Biteback, £16.99

You Decide

  1. Does a short prison sentence of less than one year do more good to our society than harm?

Activities

  1. Divide into pairs. Come up with an alternative to going to prison that you think would be a better idea for society. Present your ideas to your class and hold a vote to find the top three.

Word Watch

Perverting the course of justice
A serious offence that carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. The offence is committed where a person commits an act (a positive act or series of acts is required) which is intended to prevent the path of true public justice being carried out.
Community service
In this context an unpaid service for the benefit of the public that is performed by lawbreakers as part (or all) of their sentence.

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