Wednesday, January 28, 2004

Don't put mothers behind bars

If we are to arrest the soaring prison suicide rate among women, we need to look at alternative punishment.

Yesterday saw the launch of the Intermittent custody scheme in prisons, known informally as home and away. Judges henceforth have the power, in two pilot prisons, to mete out sentences that only apply on certain days of the week. Friday-to-Sunday terms are designed for offenders who want to keep their jobs. Monday to Thursday terms are for offenders who just really like weekends.

The two institutions are Kirkham, a men's prison in Lancashire, and Morton Hall, a women's prison in Lincolnshire. Broadly speaking, this is the direction in which the prison service should be headed - it's innovative, basically liberal and places more emphasis on rehabilitation than it does on punishment.

But if there is one pressing issue undermining the prison service - indeed, undermining all our claims to civilisation - it is inmate, [prisoner], suicide. And this is a crucial problem in women's prisons. Sixty per cent more women killed themselves in 2003 than did in 2002, a year which had already marked an all-time high. Women constitute 5% of the prison population and 15% of its suicides. Non-fatal self-harming, [? due to prison condition], is a problem almost exclusively for female inmates, [prisoners.]

And there are plenty of bodies and individuals prepared to comment damningly on the matter. But they all tend to concentrate on the mental condition of these prisoners, coupled with their often brutalised pasts.

Claire McCarthy, for the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: "These women were mentally unstable and traumatised before they even got to prison."

The Commission on Women and the Criminal Justice System published a report last November that controversially contended a link between female criminality and domestic and/or sexual violence, with either an abusive partner forcing the women into crime, or a history of abuse destabilising them from childhood.

Of course, these are all factors if we're looking to empathise with prisoners, but they put totally the wrong emphasis on the issue. For one, there is mental instability right across the prisoner population, regardless of gender - you could argue that cognitive disarray was the mainspring of criminality, since the rewards are so scant and the ramifications so far-reaching that you simply wouldn't do it, any of it, if you were fully tethered to a rational framework.

For two, the implication, in focusing on the damage in these women's pasts, is that they simply don't have the mental resilience to cope with incarceration, in which case, well, it's a shame, but then you should have kept your nose clean, love. And, for three, there is another, far more important, practical reason for women to suffer more from imprisonment than men - the responsibility of childcare.

Some 55% of all women in prison have at least one child under 16. Over one-third have a child under five. When they're sentenced, they must make provision for these children, or see them taken into care, which not even the most flagrantly blase authority would pretend is anything other than a developmental disaster.

So, the burden falls on family members, and is rarely taken on by one constant household for the entire sentence, but rather patchworked together from a variety of people, in whom the mother might have fluctuating amounts of trust.

Prison privileges, the crucial carrot/stick business of institutional life, mainly centre around phone calls - and while for men this is about keeping in touch with the outside world, for the majority of women it's the scant and only control they have over their children's welfare. The stress is intolerable, and the difference in atmosphere between male and female prisons is acute and astonishing.

So, rather than experiment with part-time imprisonment for both men and women, let's try something else - let's not imprison mothers at all. There's nothing, after all, that we can do about abuse in the past; there's not much anyone can do about women who've been harassed into crime by domestic pressure. But we can do something about people being driven to suicide by anxiety over their children, and that's not lock them up in the first place.

For the 14% of female inmates, [prisoners], who've been convicted of a violent crime, the case for incarceration could still be made, but for the overwhelming majority - the fraudsters, the thieves, the stolen-goods handlers, the drug-related offenders - what on Earth are they doing in prison, when the disruption of their absence is going to echo through generations?

Find another punishment; make them join a sewing circle. And, in the unlikely event that this new policy encourages feckless females to indulge in more crime, sod it. Over half the time, we're talking about theft or handling. And while it's hard to put a precise figure on how many thefts a human life is worth, it's quite a lot. It could be an infinite amount.

By Zoe Williams posted 28 January 04

Children of Imprisoned Mothers.pdf

This next one has more research and is longer. It has quoted sources and is quite academic looking, but you don't have to even lift a rock to find the sheer human misery that it describes.

Women in Prison & Children of Imprisoned Mothers

Maybe some of the figures might be of use some time in a campaign.

The Quaker United Nations Offices located in Geneva and New York represent Friends World Committee for Consultation (Quakers), an international non-governmental organisation with General Consultative Status at the UN. QUNO works to promote the peace and justice concerns of Friends (Quakers) from around the world at the United Nations and other global institutions. It is supported by the American Friends Service Committee, Britain Yearly Meeting, the worldwide community of Friends, other groups and individuals.

Quaker United Nations Office (QUNO)
On-line Resources on Women in Prison

What happens for a young person who has a parent in prison?

There are a lot of consequences for children or young people who have a parent in prison. During Groupwork the kids themselves have identified as being:

  • Isolated – feeling lonely
  • Stigmatised – feeling they aren't as good as others
  • Ostracised/ignored – left out
  • Missing out
    • on time with Mum or Dad
    • on activities, because there isn't enough money
  • Angry – at Dad, at Mum, at the police, at themselves
  • Deserted – betrayed, let down
  • Frightened
    • about Mum or Dad not being OK
    • about what is going to happen to them now
  • Humiliated/embarrassed – most kids wouldn't dare tell any of their friends
  • Stressed – stress can trigger anger/aggression, fits of crying, even bedwetting
  • Guilty – a lot of kids feel like it is their fault that mum or dad is in jail
  • Confused by changes in family dynamics
  • Insecure – most kids no longer feel safe and secure, they miss their parent
  • Low in self esteem
  • Having to become the adult
Statistics indicate that at any one time approximately 15,000 students in NSW are directly affected by the imprisonment of a parent, and that 60,000 students under the age of 16 have experienced parental incarceration at some point in their lives. The peer groups of each of these students can also be affected indirectly.

Parents on the inside leave children on the edge

Life in jail is an ordeal but it's a much harsher sentence for the child of a prisoner, writes Paola Totaro. 30 July 03.


UK Prison Abuse: Guards Holding Nooses
'We will kill you. We will get away with it... we've done it before' Prisoners tell of hanging threats by officers holding nooses.

K K K in the UK
In the documentary it is alleged an officer dressed in a Ku Klux Klan mask at a training centre in north-west England. An undercover reporter from the BBC also claimed to have taped racist comments by some officers.

Suicides and unrest have soared, admits Home Office
UK:The already overcrowded prison population is set to go on rising and will top 80,000 within the next three years, a senior Home Office civil servant warned yesterday.

My Sarah was smart and talented - Why did she die in jail?
LONDON: Sarah Campbell was just 18 when she killed herself [? committed suicide,] one of seven women to die in jail this year. Our correspondent asks why so many women kill themselves in prison [? commit suicide in prison.]

Updated 2009:

Most women [people] 'should not be jailed'
The Howard League for Penal Reform said jail should be reserved for women who commit serious or violent offences and remain a danger to the public.

Children of Imprisoned Mothers
United Nations lobbying body reports on women in prison and their children. I thought that two recent publications from the Quaker group that lobbies the UN might be of interest to you.

Quaker United Nations Office (QUNO)
On-line Resources on Women in Prison

Prison System Fails Women, Study Says
State policies designed for violent men make female offenders' rehabilitation difficult, an oversight panel finds. "If we fail to intervene effectively in the lives of these women and their children now, California will pay the cost for generations to come," said Commissioner Teddie Ray, chairwoman of the subcommittee that produced the report.

Prison suicides soar as jails hire 'babysitters'
UK: Prison officers are being taken off suicide watch and replaced by unqualified 'babysitters' because the system is overwhelmed by an epidemic of self-harm.

Report slams 'unjust' jailing of women on remand
UK: Six out of 10 women sent to jail while they await trial are acquitted or given a non-custodial sentence, a report published today reveals. Introducing the report, Lady Kennedy QC calls for a complete review of the use of remand and bail for women saying it is "inhumane and unjust".

Concern as UK prison suicides hit record level
UK: More prisoners took their own lives in English jails in August than in any other month since records began, prison reformers said today.

End of years of despair as Holloway closes its doors
But now Holloway prison in north London - where Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be executed in Britain, was hanged in 1955 - has been earmarked for closure, along with several other women's prisons, which have been hit by a spate of suicides.

How detox and self-help brought suicide jail back from the brink
UK: Six suicides in 12 months made Styal jail notorious and the Prisons Ombudsman criticised the prison and its staff for serious failures. But things are changing.

Parents on the inside leave children on the edge
Life in jail is an ordeal but it's a much harsher sentence for the child of a prisoner, writes Paola Totaro. 30 July 03.

2nd Renaissance -36 Let The Girls Go! [263]
During 2003 an Australian woman, Kathleen Folbigg, was sentenced to 40 years in prison, with a non-parole period of 30 years. Her crime, which she continues to deny, was to consecutively smother her four children when they were aged between 8 and 19 months. She was largely convicted on the basis of entries in her private diary, although these did not specifically refer to her having killed her two sons and two daughters; only that she was her father's daughter. Her lawyers are appealing her conviction.