Prisons are mostly populated by people who have been socially excluded in any number of ways, but there are, as you might expect, gendered aspects to these experiences. Female prisoners have frequently suffered domestic violence and/or sexual abuse, and mental health difficulties are particularly prevalent amongst women in prison, something illustrated especially starkly by one graphic statistic: women make up only 5% of the prison population in England and Wales, but account for almost half of the self-harm incidents in prison.
The new economics foundation has argued that more investment should be made into alternatives to custody for many women offenders, rather than the use of prison. In September 2008, 68% of women were in prison for non-violent offences, and in 2008, three quarters of sentenced women were serving less than twelve months. (Short prison sentences have recently been criticised by both Ken Clarke and the National Audit Office.) If the government is looking to make budget cuts, the costly use of damaging prison sentences is fertile ground for savings, with greater intervention in health, housing and other social services ultimately likely to be far more cost effective for society, in addition to being more just.