Loraine Gelsthorpe, Gilly Sharpe and Jenny Roberts have published a report saying that community sentences for women should be tailor-made to keep them out of jail. Writing the report on behalf of the Fawcett Society it is argued that:
“This report shows how community services designed specifically for female offenders can better meet the needs of women and their families, reducing reoffending and benefiting wider society.”
The report finds that holistic, empowering, woman-only community-based provision is the most effective approach for many women offenders, and advocates a move away from traditional community sentences which are based on the needs of men.
I headed this mixed feelings for a reason. I welcome the move towards less custodial sentences for minor crimes, and more often women are sent to prison for relatively minor crimes (which as shop-lifting and non-payment of bills). I welcome ideas of a community based provision which is women-only (although it isn’t clear whether this refers solely to offenders or staff as well).
However why is it we are still equating woman with family? Are we saying only single mothers commit crimes? Or that men aren’t important to families so it’s OK to lock them up? Additionally the class factors seem to be ignored here. I don’t think the report is advocating that we build such centres in Hampstead or Chelsea (middle class areas of London). Middle class women are much less likely to be sentenced to custodial sentences, in line with the figures for men, so what we’re actually saying is that for poor women, many of whom have additional problems (the report admits that two-thirds of women inmates have drug problems, most have experienced domestic violence or sexual abuse and at least 70% have mental health problems). In essence, if you are wealthy enough you can buy yourself into masculine privilege in the prison system and that privilege for middle class men is to receive lesser sentences than than their working class peers. Poor women, the report seems to be arguing, should be kept in poverty, close to but isolated from family support, with an additional burden of community service. There seems to be no discussion of adding in education services to help challenge the cycle of poverty nor support services to help with mental health issues, domestic violence or the aftermath of any violence.
And the racial elements of our prison profile is also ignored. Minority ethnic women are more likely to be imprisoned than white women especially those from a black carribean background. Isolation from community in a racist institution such as the prison service will surely not address these needs. The problem is by arguing the needs of “women” (as if women were a single, cohesive group) are such, there is a lack of interest given to the diversity of women and equating “women” with “children” just perpetuates masculine mythology that children are women’s responsibility and that men can, and should, be allowed to walk away.