My immediate reaction to Paramjit Ahluwalia’s article ‘Prison doesn’t work for women’ (27 March) was to splutter an outraged ‘you what?’ and then begin an angry and not very polite rebuttal. Then, wary of the deluge of opprobrium heaped upon a mere male who dares to criticise feminist thinking, I reconsidered.
To my surprise I found myself – at least in part – in agreement with what she said. However, while I accept Ms Ahluwalia has listed the symptoms correctly, I take issue with her treatment.
I start from the premise that if there is an aspect of society that must treat people equally, it should be the criminal justice system. The adage that justice must be seen to be done applies to how the court deals with remedies, just as it does to the conduct of trials. Society rightly demands that an individual cannot have an easier or shorter sentence on the sole ground of their sex.
That being said, men and women do react differently to being sent to prison and therefore the female prison population presents different risks and challenges. The Offender Management Service needs to recognise this. More effort needs to be put into prevention of self-harm in a women’s prison than in an equivalent male institution. This is not treating women differently – it is managing the risks presented by a particular prisoner group. This is not to say that a self-harming male prisoner should not receive the same help, merely a recognition of the laws of probability. Conversely, male prisoners might need greater protection from violence from other prisoners. Are we to say this is treating them differently?
Ms Ahluwalia also mentions separation from children caused by placing the primary carer in prison. This is a disaster for the children and the justice system needs to take this into account. Again, however, this does not imply that women should get a different type of justice, it is simply a reflection of the fact that more women are primary carers of children. There are increasing numbers of men who are also sole carers of children. The likelihood they might be primary carers for children is no justification for treating women prisoners differently as a group. The needs of all prisoners who have children should be taken into account when they enter the criminal justice system, as should the needs of their children.
It is the case that women in prison often come from abusive backgrounds but, with respect, the number of prisoners from nice middle-class backgrounds is small. Disadvantage is common among prisoners and while the nature of that disadvantage might differ between men and women, you cannot say that one is worse than the other merely because it happens to women. To hold otherwise is to blame the entire male sex for the abuse suffered by some women. As for her other points relating to prisoner homelessness and distance from families, I agree they are important, but they are important for every prisoner. It is of no greater concern that a woman should be homeless on release from prison than it is for a man.
Prison does not work for anyone, man or woman. Recidivism rates are high and so prison has little effect on criminality. It causes immense damage to the lives of the prisoner and their community. It is a very expensive way of dealing with a problem, especially when we know there are much better ways to do it.
J Howard Shelley, KJ Conroy & Co, Birmingham