Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Cherie calls for women to be kept out of jail

UK: Cherie Booth today launches an impassioned attack on the jailing of women, warning of a 'cycle of poverty and crime' spiralling down the generations unless more female criminals are spared prison.

The Prime Minister's wife paints a bleak picture of the 'distress and despair' filling Britain's prisons, describing them as 'harsh' places for the mentally ill and condemning the separation of inmates, [prisoners], from their children.

Booth, a barrister with a long-held interest in prison reform, speaks out before a major inquiry into women and crime is published on Wednesday. It is expected to attack the Government's handling of female offenders, arguing that many are locked up unnecessarily and demanding clear instructions for the courts that those with children should be imprisoned only as a last resort.

Two-thirds of women in jail are convicted of 'dishonesty' offences, such as cheque-book fraud or shoplifting, and present no danger to the public, according to the Commission on Criminal Justice set up by pressure group the Fawcett Society. Yet the number of female inmates, [prisoners], has soared by more than 170 per cent in a decade, fuelling prison overcrowding - and a spiralling suicide rate.

Vera Baird, the Labour MP and barrister who chaired the commission, yesterday blamed an 'anti-feminist backlash' in the courts, leading to women being treated more harshly. Her report will demand more use of community service instead of jail terms, backed by polling showing that more than two-thirds of the public back more community sentences for women.

Writing in The Observer today, Booth says that women offenders should not be treated with 'kid gloves', but warns: 'Our prisons are full of distressed women who, rather than being career criminals or a danger to anyone ... are inside because they have made some terrible mistakes or choices in their lives.'

Urging sentencers to take more heed of mitigating factors, such as mental illness, and use alternatives to custody, such as tagging, she adds: 'Prisons ... should be places of last resort for women whose offending is so serious that there can be no alternative to custody.

I'm not sure ... that is always the case.' Booth also highlights the social consequences of jailing women, adding: 'It can't be right ... that prison, for example, separates over 17,000 children from their mothers ... this can only reinforce a cycle of poverty and crime.'

Booth was backed yesterday by Prisons Minister Paul Goggins, who has ordered a review of judges' and magistrates' training on so-called gender issues. He said women were not committing worse crimes than in the past, simply being punished more harshly - and warned magistrates that petty offences such as shoplifting should not lead to jail.

'Many of the women now in prison could be dealt with through community sentences,' he said. 'Sentencers have become more severe: you're three times more likely to get a custodial sentence in magistrates' court than 10 years ago and two times as likely in the crown court.'

He said the number of female inmates, [prisoners], had fallen by around 1,000 since last summer, as the Home Office introduced alternatives such as tagging.

But shoplifters are still five times more likely to be jailed than a decade ago: 'Shoplifting would seem to be a non-dangerous offence where possibly somebody ... should be dealt with in the community.'

Goggins, however, defended the Government's move to jail parents of persistent truants, saying it would 'concentrate minds'. Last week Patricia Amos, jailed last year for failing to make her daughter attend school, was sentenced to another month after her another daughter again truanted.

Baird said that while initially she believed Amos's case might act as a deterrent, 'the second time around, it seems completely pointless'.

Baird's report is expected to cite rising female reoffending rates as evidence that prison is not working. It will also attack the prison service - highlighting allegations of warders sexually harassing prisoners and criticise magistrates' attitudes.

'There is an anti-feminist backlash at the moment ... and I think that sometimes [sentencers] think "women get off lightly - they tell you a sob story" and decide they should be dealt with just as harshly as men,' said Baird.

Yet she argues that prison is a worse punishment for women, especially mothers.

Almost one in 15 children will have had a parent imprisoned by the age of 16: parental imprisonment has been identified by the Treasury as a potential trigger to poverty, and a higher risk of those children then offending. Baird said that imprisoning mothers was 'a recipe for passing criminality through the generations'.

Her report will also reveal that a disproportionately high number of women offenders have previously been victims of crime, often domestic violence, arguing that tackling such problems could prevent future offences.

Gaby Hinsliff and Amelia Hill posted 30 March 04


Blunkett charges miscarriage of justice victims 'food and lodgings'
UK: WHAT do you give someone who's been proved innocent after spending the best part of their life behind bars, wrongfully convicted of a crime they didn't commit? An apology, maybe? Counselling? Champagne?Compensation?

Prison needle cleansing programme
The Department of Health and the Prison Service appeared to be at odds last night over a needle cleansing programme designed to protect prisoners from blood-borne infections such as HIV and hepatitis.

England tops the EU in imprisonment
England and Wales jail more offenders per capita than any other European, Union country, according to new figures. The imprisonment rate of 141 per 100,000 makes the countries the prison capital of Europe for the second year running.

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.

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.