Keeping Women out of Prison

Why do women offend, reoffend and how do we break the cycle?

This recent Positive Thinking Podcast on radio 4 (30 December 2019) explores why women offend, reoffend and how to break the cycle.

It has obvious relevance to the Crime and Deviance module and this is also an excellent example of a Feminist inspired programme, with the focus on stories rather than stats and solutions rather than causes.

Women make up a tiny proportion of the overall prison population and are twice as likely as men to be given a short sentence (of two years or less). However, the reoffending rates for women given short sentences is around 70% compared to men’s which is 20%.

It’s suggested that short prison sentences hit women a lot harder than men, especially the 50% of them who have children. A short sentence is just enough to mess up their lives and break down their social and emotional support networks, but not enough time for them to receive the structured support/ therapy that might help them break out bad habits such as substance abuse, for example.

The programme is co-presented by an ex-offender, Whitney, who has had 10 convictions for offences such as drugs and carrying weapons, and has spent time in jail. The programme focuses a lot on her story about why she started and continued offending ( rather than focusing on statistics) but its real focus is on solutions.

Whitney’s case is presented as ‘typical’ and it’s pretty bleak (well worth a listen first five mins of the podcast) – she was abused as a four year old by someone known to the family, and taken into foster care at 7 years of age along with here siblings, then spent the next several years in various foster homes, making 47 run-away attempts during that period. She was also excluded from multiple schools.

Eventually the authorities let the siblings go back and live with their mother, it seems because of their belligerence, but rows happened between Whitney and her mother, and that’s where her criminal record started. However, it was getting caught carrying a knife that led to her first jail sentence – she never used or drew the knife, just carried it for self defence, and she didn’t actually get a jail sentence for carrying it – she got sent down for failing to stick to the restrictions but on her as part of her remand-sentence – interfering with her tag and staying out clubbing after curfew.

She describes going to jail for 2 months as something which ‘broke her’ – she says she saw women going and coming back during that time, saw and learnt things that maybe she never should have.

Probably the most interesting section is when Whitney asks ‘could I as a four year old stopped myself from being abused? Could I as a 7 year old stopped my siblings being taken into care?’

The answer – ‘Probably not’ reminds us that Whitney is actually a victim of abuse, and that’s the root cause of her offending behaviour, so maybe being tough on such people by giving them prison sentences is not the right answer, especially when the stats show that prison does very little to break the cycle of offending.

Solutions – breaking the cycle of offending

The show looks at three projects working on solutions – one of the most interesting is a hair dressing salon in Dagenham, Essex, in which one enterprising woman trains ex offenders and drug users in level one hair dressing.

Part of the reason this works is that hairdressing is very social, and so it gives the students a connection to ‘normal’ life – and the feeling that ‘other people’ are interested in them – one student referred to didn’t have that as all she’d ever known was abusive relationships.

This project is really about going back to the very basics and just giving women the building blocks to structure their lives, and it seems to work – out of more than 40 people who took the course, only 3 didn’t complete it – 1 died and 2 went back to their own ways.

It’s worth mentioning that are some obvious links to left realist criminology here!

There are two other solutions mentioned, but I’ll let you listen to this excellent podcast to find out about them, it really is well worth a listen!

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