There was a particularly vacuous article in the Independent on Friday by Joan Bakewell (you can read it here but only if you give them money, sorry) called "How to solve the prison crisis: free all the women"
Joan lays out a case for freeing all women, regardless of crime or circumstances, whilst leaving all those rotten men in clink, because they're arseholes. This vision relies on the idea that women are primarily victims of society whilst men are responsible for their actions.
I'm worried that the idea that women are not free to make their own choices (in the same limited way as men) is underpinned by a profoundly misogynist Victorian moralism. A woman is too delicate for certain jobs. A woman needs to be protected from an evil world. A woman, when bad, must have been driven bad by a manipulative and brutish man.
Now Joan is a very personable woman and I doubt it's fair to characterise her as "anti-woman" (although I don't know her so can't be sure) but we all take on reactionary ideas sometimes, even from the best of motives and it's good to assess where we stand. Just because you're a progressive and good anti-racist, for instance, does not mean that you'll be automatically immune from every piece of racist ideology in the prevailing culture and we need to be open to the idea that we can be very wrong sometimes.
It is not pro-woman to claim that women are not responsible for their own actions and should never face (possibly serious) consequences. To say no woman has ever made a bad choice is actually the same as saying no woman has ever made any choice worthy of the name.
Anyway, back to prison. Joan lays out a number of facts to prove her case.
- prison conditions are disgusting (and not conducive to rehabilitation)
- suicide rates are very high
- drugs are more freely available in jail than elsewhere, and prison is the one place where you are most likely to acquire an addiction to an illegal substance.
- we should be helping women in difficult circumstances, not treating them like beasts.
- reoffending rates from prison are far higher than for non-custodial sentences.
- prison breaks up families, the kids lose their Mum's influence and she loses theirs.
All excellent arguments I'm sure you'll agree, I have no disagreement here. Except they apply equally to men as to women. I'm sure we could release 75% of the prison population (male and female) tomorrow without society falling into the abyss.
The criminal lack of regard for those who've fallen into jail is a disgrace. Mental health problems, illiteracy and a self esteem that resides somewhere between cockroach and cockring are real and serious problems that prison simply does not address - and often exacerbates.
The difference in Joan's eyes is that men are violent offenders and women non-violent. But what about the man in jail for shoplifting and the woman in jail for murder? Just because there are less women murderers doesn't mean the victims spring back to life "It's your lucky day, done in by your Mum, it doesn't really count." Joan conflates the true statement "Women are far less likely to be violent" with the completely wrongheaded idea "No women are ever violent."
Part of this is a misunderstanding of statistics I think. For instance, there is an argument that goes because the majority of domestic violence is carried out by men, if a man is a victim of attack by his wife he should shut up and stop complaining because he is in the minority. It doesn't count, even on a personal level. I find this position misanthropic in the extreme. The historic oppression of women and its continuation today is not a justification for abusive behaviour - how can it be?
My personal position is that violence has no place in a loving relationship and those who are victims of abuse should leave that relationship and the abuser should seek help and/or face the consequences of their actions, dependent on circumstances.
Last year one of my workmates (the delightfully mischievous Mark) was the victim of a racist assault that left him permanently scarred on his face and traumatised. He was followed home by a pack of eight young adults who began calling out to him "Paki" and "Coon" (Mark seemed to be particularly annoyed at this, he said to me three times "But you can't be a Paki and a Coon - it's one or the other - don't these people know anything?"), then they launched a vicious assault on him.
The police turned up while they were still kicking him on the ground, but refused to even take them into custody. Six of the eight were women and the scars on his face were left by the stiletto heeled shoes they'd taken off to attack him with, beating him in the head with them even when he'd fallen to the floor.
I'm not arguing we should bang them all up and throw away the key, I'm absolutely not in the pro-prison camp, but the fact there were no consequences for this very serious assault means that Mark feels himself to be absolutely valueless in the eyes of society.
The majority of violent crime is committed by men - but not all. Joan's argument simultaneously implies an utter contempt for men (who it appears wont care if they are split from their family, live in shit, become addicted to heroin or commit suicide) and discounts the agency of women entirely, claiming their actions, no matter how serious, should never merit custody.
Myra Hindley? Rosemary West? Beverley Allit? To argue that there should be no custodial sentence in any case purely on the basis that the crime was committed by a woman is frankly very, very odd. That doesn't mean we should not address what the purpose and nature of that custody is, but let's make that our starting point not generalisations about the gender of offenders.
We should be addressing the issues around the criminal justice system, which is becoming increasingly free with custodial sentances. In 1995 129 people were jailed in the UK for shoplifting. In 2005 it was 1,400. The number of women in jail has risen disproportionately in recent years. From 1,800 in 1994 to 4,500 in 2004 - out of a total prison population of over 73,000 people.
These facts (which, as an aside, disprove Joan's thesis that prison overcrowding would be solved by releasing such a small proportion of the prison population) are important in showing that New Labour's spell in office has been harsher in sentancing the poorest and most vulnerable than even the deeply entrenched Tory government that preceded it.
It's right for us to fight the inequalities in society and women as a group are systematically discriminated against in a whole number of ways, but to treat them simply as victims is, it seems to me, disrepectful. If I were to say there was one exceptional group of people that should be treated differently from everyone else by the Criminal Justice System it's children - but Joan makes no mention of the kids in custody, let them rot?