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.