Men, women and prison: A study in gender


A couple of weeks ago, an episode of Ed Miliband’s podcast, Reasons to be Cheerful, was devoted to penal policy and prison reform. It features a fascinating interview with Nils Öberg, director general of the Swedish prison and probation service who makes a string of important observations about the Nordic approach to imprisonment. In a nutshell, in Sweden prison is only ever used as a last resort, is focused upon rehabilitation, particularly addressing social, educational, psychological and addiction problems of prisoners. The Swedish reoffending rate is around 30% after three years post-release.  In the UK it is 46% after just one year, and that is despite Swedish prisons being disproportionately filled with the most damaged, violent and recidivist offenders in their system.

Immediately after that oddly inspirational interview, Miliband also talked to Blairite former Lord Chancellor Charlie Falconer and Lib Dem perjurer & (briefly) prisoner Vicky Pryce, who has recently published a book about the economics of prison. This conversation was, in contrast, deeply depressing on too many grounds to cover. For our purposes, however, I’d like to talk you through what happened at the 29 minute mark.

After a brief discussion about how and why crime is falling and whether or not prison works as a deterrent, Miliband asks Pryce:

“From your analysis, are there lots of people in prison who shouldn’t be, and who are they?” Pryce does not miss a beat.

“Ah well of course one element I have seen is women. Women who have done something relatively trivial, very often in order to respond to pressure from others, particularly their pimps or the men in their lives….” She continues for several minutes beyond that, talking exclusively about women prisoners. At no point does she go back and add so much as a single word to acknowledge that much of what she has said about women prisoners also applies to very many men in prison.

What Pryce says about women prisoners is, of course, entirely true and remains utterly shocking. My issue is not that she included or even prioritised women in her answer. My issue is that she only included women in her answer. Again and again supposedly progressive, liberal prison reform campaigners find themselves utterly incapable of admitting that the male prison population is also absolutely ravaged with the direst consequences of mental illness, lifelong social exclusion and multiple failures of the educational, social services and mental health policy. They cannot bring themselves to tell us that the other 95% of prisoners – men –  are also vastly more likely than the general population to have been physically, emotionally or sexually abused as children or adults, to have been homeless before incarceration, to have grown up in care, to have been coerced, manipulated and exploited by other criminals.

Yes, 84% of women in prison have committed non-violent offences. But so have 70% of male prisoners. Yes, 1 in 4 women in prison had been treated for a mental health condition in the year before sentencing, but so had 1 in 6 men in prison. And so on and so forth through all the statistics. It is striking that during the interview Miliband mentions two or three times that 71% of prisoners (total) are serving sentences for non-violent offenders, Pryce simply ignores him.

If even professional prison reformers such as Pryce (and the likes of the Howard League and the Prison Reform Trust have terrible records for doing this kind of thing too) cannot bring themselves to express sympathy and understanding for male prisoners, what hope is there of inspiring the type of compassion among media, politicians and (ultimately) the general public that we so desperately need to build if we’re ever to make progress?

There is also an ideological point here. The notion that all male prisoners are responsible for their own crimes and architects of their own misfortune while women prisoners are invariably helpless and hapless victims of circumstances is, quite frankly, a pretty stinky slice of patriarchal benevolent sexism. The reality – on both sides of the equation – is far more messy and ugly.

Now I do not doubt that if and when challenged Pryce would be horrified and insulted at the suggestion that she doesn’t know or care about the issues affecting male prisoners. Of course she knows. Of course she cares. I’m guessing she just assumes she will get much more sympathy, much more agreement from the audience if she talks about women than men – and she is probably right about that. But what she needs to understand is that every time someone like her passes up an opportunity to explain the horrific realities for our male prison population she is actively contributing to that public and political indifference, even hostility, to the conditions of male prisoners.

Here is a little HetPat exclusive. In the first quarter of 2016, a total of 8,430 men were released from British prisons. Of those, 917 men were released straight into homelessness. In the quarter April-June 2017 slightly fewer men came out of prison – 7,893, but the number going into homelessness rose dramatically to 1,296, more than one in six of the total.

You might reasonably ask why this statistic is exclusive to this crappy little blog read by a few thousand people? The answer is because nobody else wanted to know. In December, Jared O’Mara MP (of whom the less said the better) submitted a question to parliament to find out how many women were released from prison into homelessness. Once the answers were provided, the left-of-centre media were suitably outraged. The proportion of women released from prison into homelessness had more than doubled over those 15 months, from 9.1% to 20.9% per quarter. No one, no politician, no journalist, no broadcaster even thought to ask how the numbers compared for men, what the trend is for men, what the size of the problem is for men? I can tell you now only because I submitted my own freedom of information request.

This, I think, is a neat encapsulation of how we judge these issues. By one way of thinking, what has happened to women is worse than what has happened to men. One in five women prisoners now leaves prison to become homeless, as compared to one in six men. At the same time, 20.9% of female prison leavers is 227 people, while 16.4% of male prison leavers is 1,294 people.

Yes, it is quite right that we are shocked and appalled that 227 women are released into homelessness from prison.

It is frankly disgraceful that we are so indifferent to the same thing happening to five times as many men that literally nobody even bothers to ask the question.

Comments

  1. redpesto says

    Fogg:

    The proportion of women released from prison into homelessness had more than doubled over those 15 months, from 9.1% to 20.9% per quarter. No one, no politician, no journalist, no broadcaster even thought to ask how the numbers compared for men, what the trend is for men, what the size of the problem is for men?

    I fear the response when someone did ask was ‘well, readers can work that out for themselves’ as if no further comment was needed. The downside of being the ‘default’ group: ‘dog bites man’ is not news; ‘dog bites woman’ is seen as at least a newsworthy angle.

  2. says

    It might have been Dostoyevsky who said that you can learn a lot about a society by looking at the way it treats its prisoners …..

    Prisoners in the UK can’t expect much sympathy from the general public. There are even some people who think it’s quite acceptable to withhold medical treatment from prisoners. After all, they should have thought about that before they broke the law, and the NHS is overstretched even trying to treat its law-abiding patients. And there is no such thing as an ex-offender; anyone who has committed even the most minor infraction is tainted forever. Can’t get a job, or a roof over your head? You should have thought about that before you broke the law. On at least one occasion, the UK’s tabloid press have trumpeted their rôle in exposing a miscarriage of justice and the pardoning of a man when a few years before, they had been clamouring for the death penalty to be reinstated (side note: Expect more of this after Brexit, when the aforementioned tabloids will be able to lead off with “Now we are no longer ruled by an unelected bunch of barmy Brussels bureaucrats …..), convinced that he was guilty. Don’t like state-sanctioned murder? Well, don’t break the law, then.

    I do not think this is likely to change anytime soon unless there is a radical shift in our attitude towards the most vulnerable in society. And even then, I do not hold out much hope of matters improving for male prisoners until prison has been more or less abolished for women. I would dearly love to eat these words, but fear never tasting them.

  3. Phil says

    Ally, in my Favorite SF series (Ian M Banks’ Culture) violent criminals are just followed around by drones that prevent them from re-offending.

    suppose that becomes technologically possible in real life, would it be preferable to having prisons?

  4. Danny Gibbs says

    redpesto:
    The downside of being the ‘default’ group: ‘dog bites man’ is not news; ‘dog bites woman’ is seen as at least a newsworthy angle.

    Please believe me when I say I am not directing this at you redpesto.

    At this point the whole “men are the default” thing has become a hindsight justification for mistreating men and boys. When it comes to the prison system and recognizing the harm it does ‘dog bites woman’ is the default. It’s not like we have ever had an era where there was any real concern for male prisoners (and when it does come up the ‘men are default’ excuse is trotted out like clockwork to shift the focus right back to women).

    The “men are the default” excuse doesn’t hold water when ‘man bites dog’ stories are the ones that are rare. And even when they do come up there is a chance it will be reported as ‘man bites dog, women affected the most’.

    I suppose TLDR ‘men are the default’ is being used less for “But there is already concern for male prisoners” and more for “Male prisoners don’t matter”.

  5. Carnation says

    @ Ally

    So, here’s an idea, perhaps a controversial one. If we are all concerned with the social problem of men being sent to prison (and suffering the myriad problems that contributed to them ending up there), might not it be a move in the right direction to emphatically agree with the idea that most women in prison don’t belong in prison?

    Much like men benefitted from the #MeToo campaign, doesn’t it stand to reason that if enough political pressure is applied, and women start to be treated more humanely, then it would follow shortly thereafter that men would too?

    Clearly, typing “yeah, but what about teh menz” in comments sections has zero impact, so why not support every petition, politician and organisation saying that less women should be jailed and then wait to see if any resulting policy or legislation is gender biased when written?

  6. Marduk says

    5. The trickle-down theory of social justice is about as plausible as trickle-down economics. I can think of no example where its ever happened. A particular problem here is that many of the organisations that think women should never be jailed are simultaneously of the view that enough men aren’t jailed and aren’t jailed for long enough. Identity politics ruins everything.

  7. Carnation says

    @ Marduk

    “A particular problem here is that many of the organisations that think women should never be jailed are simultaneously of the view that enough men aren’t jailed and aren’t jailed for long enough.”

    Do expand. Which organisations are these?

  8. Carnation says

    @ Marduk

    You are talking utter shit. There is a massive difference between taking the view that men guilty of domestic abuse *should” imprisoned and your stated position that “many of the organisations that think women should never be jailed are simultaneously of the view that enough men aren’t jailed and aren’t jailed for long enough.”

    To prove your point, you’d have to point me to the bit where the “many organisations” (you managed one) demand that the status quo remains the same, except that men guilty of domestic abuse are also jailed.

    You do realise, don’t you, that men guilty of domestic abuse are violent and usually recidivist? It’s just that nobody really tends to lobby for the non-imprisonment of violent offenders.

    I genuinely don’t know if you’re stupid, lazy, going increasingly MRA (see stupid & lazy) or just like trolling.

    I recall having to do a bit of searching around to prove you wrong. It’s embarrassingly easy now.

  9. Danny Gibbs says

    @Carnation:
    So, here’s an idea, perhaps a controversial one. If we are all concerned with the social problem of men being sent to prison (and suffering the myriad problems that contributed to them ending up there), might not it be a move in the right direction to emphatically agree with the idea that most women in prison don’t belong in prison?
    I think the issue is that it seems to say that an issue affecting men on their own doesn’t really matter but it will matter if you incorporate women into it. And while that might work for issues where the disparity is closer to being equal on an issue like prison where the numbers aren’t anywhere near close it feels a bit empty and leaves the impression that men on their own for their own sake really don’t matter.

    Much like men benefitted from the #MeToo campaign, doesn’t it stand to reason that if enough political pressure is applied, and women start to be treated more humanely, then it would follow shortly thereafter that men would too?
    I think #metoo shows a bit of the opposite. Between men being directly told not to speak up on #metoo unless they are pledging to help and support women and men’s stories being buried and silenced it doesn’t seem that way. If anything that sounds a bit like “wait your turn”. I wouldn’t expect any other group to wait their turn so why should men do it especially when its not really been shown to be effective?

    Clearly, typing “yeah, but what about teh menz” in comments sections has zero impact, so why not support every petition, politician and organisation saying that less women should be jailed and then wait to see if any resulting policy or legislation is gender biased when written?
    While I think the first part of that makes sense I think that in addition to support for “less women should be jailed” there also needs to be support for “less men should be jailed” as well. If you want to make that “less people should be jailed” sure but it has be inclusive. Trickle down gender equality is a ineffective at best and dishonest at worst.

  10. Paul says

    Men commit significantly more crime than women.However i’ve sometimes wondered to what extent that can be attributed to nurture as opposed to nature ?.

    But putting that aside it’s clear that a high proportion of men who end up in prison come from highly disadvantaged backgrounds and have multiple problems including with mental health and addiction.And in that respect they share many of the characteristics of the female prison population.And like the female prison population many arguably shouldn’t be in prison.But as our host’s article rightly points out female prisoners are increasingly seen as being victims whereas male prisoners are seen as deserving everything they get.And i think that double standard underpins the way the sexes are generally treated in mainstream society.

    I fully accept that women historically have face greater levels of gender discrimination than men.But i also believe women in this country can also benefit from female privilege underpinned by the rules of chivalry.And that extends into the way female offenders are treated.For i believe that in some respects women are treated more leniantly than men.That courts are loathe to imprison mothers in particular.That many of the women in prison are multiple offenders who had preveiously been given more non-custodial punishments than their male counterparts would have been given and have simply left the courts no alternative but to imprison them.

    Women are under far less cultural pressure to ”woman up” in the way men are expected to ”man up”.And in the poorest communities women often still have status as mothers,grandmothers and aunties.However deindustrialization in these communities has left many men simulataneously removed from both the family and the workplace.but they’re still expected to prove their manhood by men and women alike.And for some committing crime is a way of doing that .Which is why ,given the disproportionate number of disadvantaged men -as well as women-in the prison population i question whether nurture-as opposed to nature- goes some way in explaining significantly higher male offending rates compared to female offending rates.

    Some years ago i read an article by a community worker living on an estate in Moss Side in Manchester.And this estate like many have a very high rate of families headed by single mothers.And according to this community worker the women on this estate could put a stop to the largely male criminality which blighted the estate but they don’t because they often benefit from it.For although they have a respected status as mothers etc in their communities they’re also highly disadvantaged and struggling on low incomes.So when their sons,brothers and partners provide them with cash and goods they don’t ask questions as to where it came from.And they will provide alibis if they can if the police come knocking on their doors.

    The UK has one of the highest incarceration rates in the developed world.Although we’ve got some way to go before we match the americans who incarcerate six times more people than we do.However many of those in prison shouldn’t be in prison and that goes as much for men as it does for women.Yet the focus on prison reform in this country at the moment seems to be on looking at non-custodial options for female offenders.And cites the relatively high rate of suicide,attempted suicide and self-harm amongst female prisoners.But male prisoners also suffer from relatively high rates of suicide,attempted suicide and self-harm.So the current gendered look at prison reform has to be seen for what it is.And that is blatantly sexist.

  11. says

    @Paul, #11: Anytime you ever feel yourself wondering whether a particular gendered phenomena is due to nature or nurture, have a look at The Gender Police — a Diary by Ros Ball and James Millar, one couple’s fascinating account of how similarly or differently people treated their son and daughter.

    One thing we don’t seem to do very well in this country is preventing crime before it has a chance to happen. We prefer to wait until it is already to late, and then get all bloodthirsty with the offender.

  12. Ally Fogg says

    Carnation [5]

    Big no to that one, I’m afraid.

    If we date the current “mood” around prison reform to the Corston era, that is basically a decade now, and in that time I’m pretty sure the opposite has happened to what you describe. The continued focus on female prisoners as victims of society, victims of male abusers, victims of pimps etc seems to have done nothing but harden indifference to the situation for male prisoners.

    And that is really not surprising. If we constantly tell people that the 5% are exceptions because they are different (the fundamental message of the post-Corston era) then it is frankly never going to happen that press, public, politicians etc suddenly wake up one morning and say, wait a minute…. maybe those other 95% are an exception too….

    This absolutely gets to the heart of why I have an issue with the likes of Pryce focusing exclusively on female prisoners when it comes to doling out sympathy, compassion and understanding.

    Every time a commentator says “ah, but women prisoners need compassion because they have special circumstances….” what they are clearly saying in the subtext is that male prisoners do not need compassion.

    And to all intents and purposes, this is what the vast bulk of the (supposed) prison reform campaign sector has been telling people for 10 years now. And it is immensely damaging.

  13. Carnation says

    @ Ally Fogg

    “The continued focus on female prisoners as victims of society, victims of male abusers, victims of pimps etc seems to have done nothing but harden indifference to the situation for male prisoners.”

    I think that that indifference is going nowhere, unfortunately, except hardening further. Some encouraging noises were made (IIRC) during Cameron’s tenure as PM regarding meaningful prison reform (was it Ken Clarke?), but it was slapped down by the usual suspects.

    Simply put, I cannot imagine a Tory government doing anything for male prisoners. A Corbyn government? Who knows, maybe, but probably not.

    I’m not attached to the idea that I proposed, but given the harsh reality of the alternatives, I think that it could potentially be the only way forward.

    This is a half-formed thought, but then again this is a discussion thread, but if a law was passed requiring judges to take into account, for example, abusive childhood experiences, would not male prisoners have recourse to appeal a sentence that didn’t take this into account?

  14. Ally Fogg says

    The thing is Carnation, the point we are at is not even asking politicians or judges to demonstrate some understanding of the issues and sympathy for male prisoners. We are several tiers below that.

    We are currently at the stage of asking prison reform charities, including the likes of the Howard League and the PRT, to have the courage (and I think that is the right word) to make the case for compassion and understanding for male prisoners.

    Once we’ve got them on board, then maybe we can start on the Ministry of Justice & sentencing guidelines (per your suggestion) and all the the rest of it.

    And yes, this is a desperate situation and it is frankly pathetic and miserably depressing that we are where we are, but so it goes.

  15. Carnation says

    @ Ally Fogg

    That’s an interesting point, and one I find difficult to disagree with.

    I think that the UK’s attitude to prisoners is crass populist aggression at its worst and it’s a national disgrace.

    I had a few interactions with the criminal justice system when I was a young adult, including a few (mercifully short, 24 – 48 hour) periods when I was denied liberty. It’s dehumanising in the extreme. I remember well the strutting of young men walking down the corridors, going back to their cell, all front, tragically wallowing in their supposed notoriety.

    Much like drug and alcohol education, it’s a huge, huge tangled mess and doing something meaningful and positive to tackle it can seem an insurmountable task at times.

  16. Marduk says

    9. Its much wider than that carnation, the context is actually around trafficking and prostitution. Its about how you believe social justice and criminal justice should interact and affects things like whether you think an addiction or mental health model is appropriate in how offenders in ‘gendered crimes’ are treated. It also forms part of the critique of white feminism by black feminists, for example around “broken windows” and “three strikes” regimes that remove men in vast quantities from their communities often over public order offences. Lesbian feminists have noted that “primary aggressor” rules designed to protect women actually means lesbians are over-represented in the prison system. It seems like a reasonable debate to have, and there is no need for you to be rude.

    Meanwhile in the Graun:
    https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/feb/19/woman-laugh-misogynistic-jokes-theory-behaviour
    This is a great example, we won’t see one this good for a while. The gag is that Bill talks about times he has *imagined* hitting a woman and asks if it surely could be justified (could you hit a female hitler, that kind of thing). Everyone gets offended and quiet, Bill awkwardly laughs it off and moves on in the routine. One might ask at this point why an A-list live act keeps a joke in his act and TV specials that ‘doesn’t work’. The climax of the next (longish) story is his wife beating him up and leaving him on the bathroom floor gasping for breath after he bought her the birthday present sweater she’d wanted all along. Its very carefully set up as the archetypal domestic abuse scenario, it begins with abuse, her slapping him round the head and throwing his breakfast off the table and ends up with her following him into the bathroom to berate him when he tries to escape. Everyone laughs and laughs and laughs. So funny, he bought her the sweater and he pretended he hadn’t, and she was so angry! Nobody remembers they were offended in the first part of the joke and the author wrote a whole column in which she shows she didn’t know it was a two-part joke because the coda isn’t worth relating to the first or even remembering. Point well and truly proven.

  17. Carnation says

    @ Marduk

    Nope, it’s about you, and people like you, making sweeping generalisations because the imaginary feminists in your head provide a persecution narrative. Then, when challenged, you chant “Julie BIndel” and think it proves a point.

    So, I wonder if you’ll be man enough (I know, I know) to acknowledge that when you said;

    “A particular problem here is that many of the organisations that think women should never be jailed are simultaneously of the view that enough men aren’t jailed and aren’t jailed for long enough.”

    You were just basically relying on nothing more than personal prejudice and a lazy trope. Your recent attempts to obfuscate are laughably weak and not worth replying to.

  18. Marduk says

    19.
    I did not ‘chant Julie Bindel’. Its very hard to talk about feminist law reform and exclude Julie, particularly given her partner is Harriet Wistrich. If you don’t know who that is, look her up. Compare JFW with CWJ, oh what a coincidence, the same trustees. The former is explicitly about getting women out of prison, the latter is the lobbying group for coming up with new offences (‘addressing omissions by the state’) and harsher sentencing.

    Their view is not that prison needs reform or even that there is anything wrong with it at all, their view is that patriarchy creates female victims who fall into the justice system (shouldn’t be there in the first place and need to be released) and creates male criminals who need to be locked up in greater numbers. It is unclear to me why you insist that supporting that agenda will lead to better prisons and sentencing procedures for men.

    I’ve given you the example you asked for, I gave you a link to information that shows this is an entire genre of feminist thought that has been questioned. The truth is you are a disingenuous liar Carnation, you aren’t interested in debate and when I give you the resources you ask for (a courtesy you have never once returned) you either fail to engage with it or you just ignore it on a no true Scotsman basis. I wouldn’t even mind this immaturity if you weren’t so ill-mannered about it.

    By all means don’t reply to me, I recall a period when you were particularly abusive of asking you not to and it didn’t work. Will reverse psychology work on this occasion?

  19. Carnation says

    @ Marduk

    You said ” A particular problem here is that many of the organisations that think women should never be jailed are simultaneously of the view that enough men aren’t jailed and aren’t jailed for long enough.”

    The dictionary definition of many is; “a large number of”

    You then point out that a pressure group lobbies for the imprisonment of men convicted of domestic abuse. You missed the fact that she also lobbies for the killers of men to be held to account, too; https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2004/aug/11/prisonsandprobation.ukcrime

    You have failed, and failed obviously, to point out “a large number” of organisations that want to imprison more men. You pointed out a single organisation that wants to imprison more *violent* men.

    Let’s expand a little further. Why is prison reform a problem because Julie Bindel wants more domestic abusers (and racist killers) imprisoned?

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