Crime,  Law,  Your View

Bad Girl

This is a guest post by Farah Damji

The UK (a) (including, Jersey, Guernsey, the Isle of Man) has the dubious honour of being the country that locks up more people at 624 per 100 000 of its population, than any other country, except the US. We are the prime offenders in the European Union, topping even the punishment-meting Germans (96) and the intolerant French (85). Even if we exclude the outlying territories (which are all subject to British jurisprudence so I see no reason to, save to massage the figures which are pretty horrifying), we are still the headline act at 134 per 100 000.

The issue at hand isn’t that we shouldn’t lock people up if and when they do something wrong. Over two thirds of the UK women’s prison population consists of women being held on remand, awaiting trial. Over 59% of these are either acquitted or receive non-custodial sentences. Let me tell you up front a bit about myself, in the interest of full disclosure and because David T can nag like a Yenta. I have had “brushes with the law” both here and in the US. In 1995 I went to prison for four months for lying and stealing and in 2005 I went to jail for 21 months because I obviously didn’t get it the first time round. That was for perverting the course of justice (x2) and theft (x8). More recently, I was acquitted fully of fraud charges at Kingston Crown Court, but that doesn’t read as well in the tabloids or vigilante blogs. You can read about that here . I am awaiting sentencing on an unrelated matter, which I am not going to discuss because this case is a mess and might go to trial. So, you get the picture? I have been a “service user” Of the criminal injustice industry on both sides of the pond.

Women are responsible for holding families and homes together. When we look at what prison does to a woman’s life, and how prison can’t possibly meet the very practical needs of women on remand who are also mothers, primary caregivers and at the core of the family unit, we see how overlooked women’s needs are. Prison has been described as trying to fit a woman shaped creature into a man-shaped hole. There are far more men in prison than woman (some 71 000 as compared to about 7 000) and the system has been designed for male offenders by men in the criminal justice business. Because it is a business, which is a massive growth industry and if I had money to burn I would be investing in Serco, Premier Custodial Group, Sodexho, UK Detection Services, Group 4 Securicor…even serial entrepreneur Richard Branson wants a piece of the criminal enterprise, his Virgin Group is bidding for the contract to take prisoners to and from court and jail. Will they get Virgin miles?

Because women on remand are usually solely responsible for the maintenance of a home and the care of their children, the impact that being held on remand for even a short period of time is massive and disproportionate. Most trials don’t take place for at least five or six months and you can lose a lot in that time. The small number of women’s prisons means that women are often held hundreds of miles from their families and children’s lives are ruined forever, 66% of women prisoners are mothers and every year more than 17 700 children are separated from their mothers every year. (b). Because of the way the prison estate has “grown” which is somewhat organic and haphazardly, with many former men’s jails being re-rolled to meet the increased demand for space to incarcerate women, logistically, women are often held much further away from home than male offenders. In 2007, the average distance a woman was held from her home or committal court was 55 miles, 800 women were held over 100 miles away and 60% of women were held in prisons outside their home regions. (d)

Women on remand are one of the fastest growing groups of prisoners. I told you it was a growth industry. There has been a 78% increase in the number of women remanded into custody between 1996 and 2006 compared to a 15% increase with men (c) In spite of calls from Prison Governors upon Magistrates and District Judges not to sentence offenders to sentences of less than a year – studies show that the impact of a prison sentence of less than a year is unlikely to be effective – Magistrates keep sentencing people to short sentences and placing women on remand. A Magistrate or a District Judge should really only remand someone if there is the likelihood that they will commit further offences whilst on bail, that they will try and intimidate witnesses or interfere with the ongoing investigation of the case against them or that they are a threat to themselves or the public. In the event of a violent crime, it is unlikely that bail will be given, although depending on your brief and what the sitting judge / bench / magistrate had for breakfast that morning, that isn’t unheard of either.

It’s all too random. Bail is supposed to be a right under the law and being remanded into custody is meant to be the exception. But the “guidelines” leave too much discretion in the hands of inexperienced judges who will believe anything the police say to them. Police lie, we know this, we have seen it over and over again, more so recently with unsafe convictions being overturned on appeal in record numbers. It is much better for them if their suspect is safely put away and they can get on with preparing for trial whilst putting the defendant at an unfair disadvantage. It also plays nicely to the public’s inherent hate of women criminals, even alleged criminals because as a society we just can’t deal with the idea of women committing crimes and rather than look at the core issues which give rise to these acts, we want to lock up these Medea-like deviants who are meant to give life and breast milk, not shoplift, sell drugs and become misfits. The majority of women go to prison for non-violent crime, extreme anti-social behaviour really. Although the CPS is supposed to prove allegations and assertions made for the argument against bail, with evidence, they don’t have to. In a Bail Application, the defendant is viewed as guilty already, so it is up to their legal team to make a case which will stand up to this higher barrier of proof. Magistrates’ Courts are usefully known as police courts amongst the legal profession because, in spite of the Bail Act 1976, under which there is an assumption that a person should be granted bail if the CPS oppose bail at the police’s behest, it is invariably not given.

Being on remand is the same as being sentenced, it is punishment and while it should be reserved for the most dangerous and persistent offenders, we can’t warehouse whole sub-sections of our society (usually black and Asian youths and other minorities, felonious women being one of them) because they are the bogey-person and we don’t really know how to deal with the issues which cause the offending in the first place. Magistrates don’t understand the impact prison will have on a trial. It is impossible to conduct the research and preparation for your trial while all the time being subjected to prison rules and insufficient resources. Internet is banned in the female estate because I suppose we are all potential hackers and only 48% of prison libraries stocked the requisite legal texts which could help a remanded person to try and carry out some research into his defence. They are meant to carry these books, under Prison Service Orders but they fail to comply.

Women released from prison are 36 times more likely to kill themselves than the general population. (e) According to the government’s Social Exclusion Unit, over 50 prisoners who had been recently released committed suicide shortly after release in 2008. (f)

Women is prison represent the most mistreated, undervalued and abuse section of society. The figures are harrowing:

-over half the women in prison say they have suffered domestic violence and one in three has experienced sexual abuse

-over one third of women prisoners lose their homes and their possessions whilst they are in prison

-of the whole female prison population, 37% say they have attempted to commit suicide at least once

–one in four has spent time in local authority care as a child, nearly 40% of women in prison left school before the age of sixteen, almost one in ten was 13 or younger

A forthcoming Oxford University report on the health of 500 prisoners says:

“ Women in custody are five times more likely to have a mental health concern than women in the general population.” 58% had used drugs daily in the six months prior to prison and 75% had taken an illicit drug in those six months.

In 2007, the Corston Review of vulnerable women in the Criminal Justice system which was commissioned by the Home Secretary following the deaths of six women at HMP Styal stated “the Government should announce within six months a clear strategy replacing existing women’s prisons with suitable, geographically dispersed, small, multi-functional custodial centres within ten years.” In the event then, that a woman is deemed unfit to be released on bail, at least she could maintain family contact and have regular legal visits. Given the ever shrinking budget for publicly funded defences, most lawyers are loath to visit their clients even locally in prisons, let alone 55 miles away.

A further Commission on Women and the Criminal Justice System which was published in May 2009 by the Fawcett Society named “five key areas requiring urgent attention ” and one of these was the sentencing and over-use of remand and custodial sentences for non-violent crimes.”

It isn’t just the women we are locking up we are punishing. It is their children and exponentially, the whole of society suffers too as we encourage generation after generation of “lost” children who slipped between the state and a mother’s love.

In this country there is the quaint misconception that you are innocent until proven guilty. By holding women on remand we are guilty of criminalizing them before they have even been found guilty, let alone begun the process of a trial. It’s practically impossible to get bail from prison, unless there is a significant change of circumstances that can be put before a Crown Court. Most private prisons (PFIs) don’t operate properly functioning bail schemes which are easily accessible and don’t employ prison officers who can help women sort out bail through registered and approved schemes such as Clearsprings which provides people awaiting trial an address and supervision in the community. At HMP Bronzefield, the Bail Officer refused to call the Court because “that was not her job.” She is meant to be the link between the Court and the prisoner. Every public prison has the number of every court in the land already listed on the numbers a prisoner is allowed to call. HMP Bronzefield operates outside that, as it does in many areas. Private prisons are a business, the governor is called a director, which shows the nature of the organisation. Private prisons have no incentive to let a person be released on bail when the cost of keeping a person in prison exceeds £40 000 a year. The number of prisoners given HDC from privately run prisons, another useful way of monitoring someone while she is on remand is much less than that of state run prisons who have no financial impetus to keep women behind bars.

A fair and just and good society is judged by how we deal with the most difficult and troubled people in it, not how we contain and punish them but how we integrate them, make them feel part of something and demonstrate a credible justice system, one that is worth believing in, for everyone. I didn’t invent this, Clive Stafford Smith said it, but he was on the One Show and it was difficult to get his wisdom over the inane blandness of Christine Bleakely who was doing her best impersonation of a Daily Mail brandishing stereotype of Disgusted of Middle England. It’s by upholding centuries of law which have evolved and a person’s most basic human rights such as the right to liberty, family and a fair trial that we can continue to stand up and be counted as an open transparent liberal democracy, not by daily eroding those rights and affecting the wholesale kidnapping of innocent mothers by the state.

a. Home Office: World Prison Population

b. Prison Reform Trust: Bromley Briefings

c. Ibid.

d. Hansard House of Comons written answers, 31 Jan 2008, 19 June 2007

e. The Lancet Vol 368 Issue 9530 08 July 2008 Page 119 – 123

f. Social Exclusion Unit 2002 Reducing Reoffending by ex-prisoners, London: Social Exclusion Unit

Also: Woman in Prison

Farah Damji’s memoir, Try Me, was published in July. For more about Farah Damji, visit her book’s website and buy a copy for Christmas, Hannukah, Eid, whatever.