It was Dostoyevsky who wrote that a society could be judged by how it treats its prisoners. If you add its powerless, damaged, addicted and “born to fail”, I can only agree. At a time when the usual jail/don’t jail women debate seems to have to have been unleashed again, just like the Kraken it is, Solicitor-Advocate and contributor, Alan Muir has a few thoughts-just throwing them out there folks!
We are continually fed the “There should be fewer women in prison” line. Alright- why? Having worked out the why, the necessary question is how do we as a society go about achieving that goal. So far, it has been a sadly obvious “own goal” for successive administrations
I know why I believe that there should be fewer women in prison, but, my own view is that this has become a political line to trot out rather than a considered strategy capable of judicial application. The longer we go on without a proper debate, and change, the more we, as a society, actually fail the public as victims of crime and fail the very people who should be helped rather than simply locked up for ever increasing periods.
If the criminal justice system sends out the message, as it to some extent already does, that women will be treated more leniently simply because being female is a factor in mitigation, this will, in my view, make the same women even more vulnerable than they already are to being used by male (or female) ringleaders who sit in the background, one stage further away from punishment. We have all seen it, the “my man told me there was nae danger” drugs couriers- the obvious unasked question? If it was so free of danger why didn’t your man do it himself? There are the shoplifting gangs directed by a figure in the background and “rewarded” with a tenner bag or their benefit book back (temporarily). At the other end of the scale are those criminals, who just happen to be female, who should be locked up. Let’s not forget that two of the biggest heroin dealing rings uncovered in Scotland in the last 15 years were headed by women.
The pathetic (in its original sense) “revolving door” at Cornton Vale is a heart wrenching sight; lassies brought up to believe that, often like their mothers, they are worth nothing more – no better than you should be etc. Little wonder that temporary escape is sought via the needle, or worse on a permanent basis.
Insane as this may sound, for some the jail is a form of escape in itself. If facing the daily torture of an abusive partner who has branded her as his by the child they, at least biologically, share, the pressure to feed, clothe the child(ren), feed an increasing habit, pay the mounting catalogue debts, visit various prisons their man is held in, bring him in money, drugs or whatever, attend his trials in support, attend the however many meetings with keyworkers, mentors, social workers, doctors etc. etc.-stop!
Against that 24/7 backdrop, a stay among folk you can indentify with, your fellow female inmates, three meals a day, some degree of privacy, some degree of status, staff who ask how you are (and are actually interested to know) and the safety of knowing that your man can’t kick in that particular door to demand money, his conjugals or just a punchbag has some upside.
BEFORE you lynch me, I am NOT suggesting that, in these circumstances, the jail is easy-far from it. What I am suggesting is that we cannot hope to address the “There should be fewer women in prison” without adequately addressing what caused , and continues to cause, this sorry state of recidivism and “revolving door”
Put in place a realistic system of practical empowerment and support not keep going down the route of “there, there, how could it have turned out any other way?” We are making these women dependant in the same way as the circumstances that brought the problem about. When that “support” is removed due to pressure on funding etc. more sinister dependence will return.
So, how do we do it?
1) Start early, start strong and keep on throughout school life. The conditioning that allows this abuse to go from generation to generation, like a genetic social cancer, starts from what is seen in early life. We are constantly shown how much the actions of parents and those around children are copied (see the anti-smoking adverts). “Ma man might hit me but no’ as much as my Da’ hit my maw!” Oh well, no cause for concern there then!
2) Employ “real” survivors, not the “kiddie on” troops too often assigned too many cases of folk who cannot, quite rightly, see any connection between their life histories- because there isn’t any. Self-respect and empowerment courses taught, as I said, by honest to God survivors who can, and very quickly do, earn the respect and attention of the class before them. You cannot read about abuse, addiction etc. and then hope to be taken seriously by someone who lives witnesses its scars and effects every day or goes home from class to face it. If on nothing else, trust me on that one. I have encountered some of the most well intentioned but dangerous and patronizing “book experts” you could ever hope to avoid! (Many on £30K+ a year)
The only thing worse than no therapist? A bad therapist!
3) Bin the New Labour, PC, line management crap! It was never going to work, it hasn’t, it isn’t and it never will. If, someone values you enough for them to choose you as, perhaps, the first they ever confided in about abuse, you cannot be chained by “I have to stop you there. As a result of the nature of the account you are disclosing to me, I must inform my line manager of this allegation, back in a jiff”. Chances are they don’t want anyone else to know, if they did, they would have told someone earlier. It is simply offensive, having plucked up that level of courage, to be “passed up the line” and again made powerless over the abuse.
4) Increase the number and standard of safe houses- those who are driven to the safe house should be supported- they have been failed not they have failed. Only feeling able to use a toilet/shower after carrying out a full deep cleaning exercise hardly helps to ease the feelings of loss and despair and to instill a feeling of being in a safe place to rebuild from a shattered life.
5) Invest in empowerment NOT yet more leaflets.To be told that you should walk away from a violent situation is utterly pointless and, in my view cruel, unless places are available in secure high standard, short term alternatives. In there run classes in self respect, self defence, bargain budgeting, form filling, standing up to authorities, arguing for legal rights. Employ “sponsors” who have been through this, so, providing that person with meaningful employment, off the benefit roundabout and the value of putting something back. Never being taught those basics is what got them there, so, if you turn them out at some stage, without those weapons, do not be surprised that the process goes back to square one (or worse!)
6) I am, after 20 years in criminal defence, candidly, sick of the fifth defence in Scots Law- “ma burd’ll no speak up”. Time to put the effort and resources into the Human Rights and empowerment of the girl who grows into a self-determining woman.
The repetition of the same act expecting a different result is recognized as a classic symptom of insanity, so, time to try the alternative therapy.
P.S. It is also cheaper-think they heard that last bit!