Sunday 21 January 2018

Women in prison: The need for radical reform

Expert view: Dr Christina Quinlan

Family pictures: a cell in Limerick Prison. Photo: Colin O'Riordan
Family pictures: a cell in Limerick Prison. Photo: Colin O'Riordan
Dr. Christina Quinlan

In prison, gender differences are revealed with extraordinary clarity. Women engage in much less criminal activity than men and they represent a minority in prisons. Worldwide, women are estimated to represent 2-9pc of national prison populations. In the Republic of Ireland, women make up about 3.8pc of the prison population.

There are two women's prisons, the Dóchas Centre at Mountjoy Prison in Dublin, with accommodation for 105 women, and Limerick Prison, predominantly a male prison, the oldest operating prison in Ireland, with one female wing which can accommodate 28 women.

In 2015, the daily average number of women in prison in Ireland, both under sentence and on remand, was 153. With an overall capacity for 133 women, overcrowding in the women's prisons continues to be an issue. Another issue, of course, is the cost of imprisonment. In 2015, the average annual cost of an available staffed prison space was €68,628.

A sentence of imprisonment, the worst punishment the State can inflict, should only be imposed in response to the most serious offending behaviour. Yet women continue to receive short-term prison sentences for non-violent or relatively minor offences. In 2015, for example, 89.9pc of the women sentenced to prison in Ireland were jailed for failing to pay court-ordered fines. Given the cost of each prison place, imagine if some other method could be devised to deal with such offences. Imagine the impact that this would have on our prisons, on the work of prison staff, on rehabilitation and treatment programmes, on the dispersal of budgets, and on overall costs.

It is widely accepted that men and women experience prison differently. This is accepted, for example, by the Irish Prison Service, by the Northern Ireland Prison Service, by the Scottish Prison Service, and by HM Prison Service, the prison service of England and Wales. The fact that this has been accepted by these national prison services is evident in the specific policy provision in each of these jurisdictions for women prisoners. In Ireland, this policy of separate and distinct provision is laid out in detail in the publication Joint Probation Service - Irish Prison Service Strategy 2014-2016.

In the document, the particular needs of female offenders are highlighted, as is the fact that most women who offend pose a low risk to society; and the fact that many women in prison are mothers of young children, and some of them struggle with their parenting responsibilities because of their personal circumstances and their own unmet needs. Outcomes for children whose mother has experienced prison are a particular concern. Women are fundamental to the functioning of their families and their homes, and women who are imprisoned often lose their families and their homes. This doesn't generally happen to men. When a man is imprisoned, there is usually a woman at home minding the family and the home.

In 2010, the United Nations' Rules for the Treatment of Female Prisoners and Non-Custodial Measures for Women Offenders, known as the Bangkok Rules, were adopted by the UN General Assembly. The 193 countries who are members of the United Nations voted unanimously for the Bangkok Rules, acknowledging that women in criminal justice systems do have gender-specific characteristics and needs, and they agreed to respect those needs and meet them. The Bangkok Rules explain that criminal justice systems routinely overlook the specific needs of women and girls, that prisons and their regimes are generally designed for male offenders.

The document explains that a considerable number of women in prison are there "as a direct or indirect result of multiple layers of discrimination and deprivation". Many are in prison because they have committed a petty poverty-related offence, such as theft, fraud or a minor drug-related offence. Many have been victims of serious violent offences. There is an acknowledgement that prison is a damaging experience, and an acknowledgement that women, through their circumstances and vulnerabilities, can become trapped in criminal justice systems. Alternative ways of dealing with the offending behaviours of women are proposed.

Among the alternatives that might be considered in Ireland for dealing with women's offences are counselling services; the provision of special supports for women with caring, and particularly childcare, responsibilities, such supports should include the possibility of the suspension of detention; the provision of gender-specific diversionary measures; and the provision of alternatives to custody. There needs to be a focus on non-custodial measures, on restorative justice programmes, on community service sentences, and on mentorship schemes. There should be thresholds to imprisonment, and these thresholds should be markers of the seriousness of offending behaviour.

In Ireland, we have a punitive penal system. Rather than high-security prisons, what we really need are caring facilities equipped to deal with the needs of women, facilities capable of providing women with supports that can help them redirect their lives. Dealing with women's offending behaviour in local communities as much as possible makes sense on many levels. Women can be very agentic. With a little help, they will develop themselves, and when they do, the positive impact on families and communities can be substantial.

In the publication the Joint Probation Service - Irish Prison Service Strategy 2014-2016, a proposal was made for an open centre for women in the criminal justice system, a facility with services such as specialist addiction and mental health services, education, training, and therapeutic programmes co-located on site. We persist in Ireland in imprisoning poor women, many of whom have themselves been victims of serious crime. By any measure of justice, these women have been punished enough. Prisons are archaic structures. We need to be serious now about developing alternatives to them.

 Dr. Christina Quinlan, Lecturer in Criminology and Criminal Justice, De Montfort University, Leicester.

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