Women demand equality. So why should female criminals be spared jail?

Holloway prison is set to close
Holloway prison is set to close

There are few who will truly mourn Holloway prison, for which the death knell finally sounded this week. Despite being rebuilt during the 1970s, this austere North London brick building has always had something of the cruel Victorian institution about it.

Little wonder, given the grim events that have unfolded there over its 163 year history, including the brutal force-feeding of Suffragettes Sylvia and Christabel Pankhurst and the hanging of Ruth Ellis in 1955 – the last woman in England to be executed. The famous all-female prison is still said to have a ‘fearsome reputation’. Now it is to be sold off to make way for housing. 

Yet, many of those cheering Holloway’s demise are also championing the abolition of ‘women’s prisons’ entirely, arguing they ‘do more harm than good’ to Britain’s female criminals - many of whom suffer with mental illness and whose incarceration forces their children into the UK care system merry-go-round.

"I could go on listing facts and figures about the disturbing impact of imprisonment on women and their families. There are many".

Half of women in British prisons suffer from anxiety and depression and a quarter report symptoms of psychosis. Nearly half of incarcerated women will have attempted suicide. Moreover, a third of female prisoners have a child under five, and estimates suggest that more than 17,240 children were separated from their mothers in 2010.

I could go on listing facts and figures about the disturbing impact of imprisonment on women and their families. There are many. But the case for helping men is convincing too – with prison overcrowding, and the number of serious assaults against jailed men at its highest level in a decade. Women might currently account for 26 per cent of all self-harm in prison, but this is actually a sharp drop since 2011 and reflects the growing number of incidents involving men.

Sylvia Pankhurst was in Holloway prison

It’s clear that our entire prison system is in need of an overhaul.

But to limit that reform to women – indeed, to argue that women shouldn’t be locked up, but placed into rehabilitation centres, or custodial units – only serves to infantilise my sex. It exposes society’s ingrained belief that women aren’t capable of committing serious crimes and when they do – they shouldn’t feel the full force of the law.

Oh but we are and we should.

Take this week as a snapshot. On Wednesday, 22-year-old Jessica Lind was found guilty of perverting the course of justice, after faking her own kidnapping in an attempt to win back her ex boyfriend. On Thursday, the Samantha Watt, 31, became the first woman in the UK to be jailed for a revenge porn offence, after posting pictures of her former lover on Facebook and captioning them ‘This girl pays for rent with sex’.

"To send the overarching message that female criminals should be treated less seriously than male convicts is dangerous".

Meanwhile, a 15-year-old schoolgirl was in court after stabbing a male classmate repeatedly in the chest in revenge for playground gossip about a kiss. She plunged the blade into her former friend, who was listed in her phone as ‘dead man walking’.

To send the overarching message that female criminals should be treated less seriously than male convicts is dangerous. Special treatment based on gender does none of us any favours, least of all the victims of crime.

Watt’s revenge porn is a classic case. Up until now, it has largely been seen as a ‘male crime’ – where spurned men post explicit pictures of their former lovers on the internet. Are we suggesting that a woman found guilty of the same offence should be treated with more leniency and not sent to prison? That, should she have a child, she might be able to play a ‘get out of jail free’ card?

Women’s rights campaigners fought hard for the new ‘revenge porn law’ that came in earlier this year. We can’t then reasonably argue that female perpetrators shouldn’t be subject to its effects.

Jessica Lind Credit: Daily Echo/Solent News

You might think me cold-hearted. I’m not. Simply, I believe that both men and women should be subject to the same justice. Any grounds for clemency should apply as much to men as they do to women.

It’s 2015 – the Sex Discrimination Act was 40 years old this month. This may well be the dark side of equality, but it needs bringing into the light. If we want both sexes to enjoy the same societal standing, women must take everything that comes along with that.

That’s not to ignore the prison gender gap. Of the 85,982 people currently in prisons and young offender institutions in England and Wales, 82,023 of them are men.

Women make up just five per cent of the total prison population. The majority of women entering the system (82 per cent) have been sentenced for non-violent offences, such as handling stolen goods, compared to 70 per cent of men.

"Many of these women have been let down by the Government and society long before they enter the prison system".

There are also differences in the reasons men and women offend. Female prisoners are more likely to have suffered abuse. More than half (53 per cent) were sexually, physically or emotionally abused as children, while 46 per cent have experienced domestic violence (mainly at the hands of men).

Outcomes for imprisoned women are also significantly worse, with 55.8 per cent of reoffending within a year (compared to 26 per cent with given community orders). Women released from custody are also more likely to reoffend, and quicker than those serving community sentences.

The thing is – many of these women have been let down by the Government and society long before they enter the prison system. According to the Prison Reform Trust, nearly half of imprisoned women report having committed offences to support someone else’s drug use.

Wouldn’t it be better to help women at the root of the problem, rather than spending time and money trying to mollycoddle them after the event?

This week, it was revealed that 42 per cent of Rape Crisis centres haven’t had any funding confirmed beyond March 2016 and are at risk of closure. The Chancellor might have clumsily announced, in his Spending Review, that the VAT from tampon tax (£15m) will go to women’s charities – essentially women paying for women’s problems – but it’s not nearly enough to plug the gap.

Why not put the money saved by closing Holloway into some of the services that could really help women and keep some of them out of the prison system in the first place?

Such foresight would then really see criminal justice for women move out of the Victorian era  for once and for all.