The government has announced a £150m plan to create 500 new prison places for women. It says that the extra places are needed because an extra 20,000 police officers will lead to more female arrests.
Prisons are filled with people whose lives have been made especially difficult by the brutality of capitalism: the poor, the homeless, those with mental health and addiction, those who experience racism. Two-thirds of women in prison are survivors of domestic abuse. Over half experienced physical, emotional or sexual abuse during their childhood.
Coercive and abusive relationships can serve to draw women into crime; half of women in prison have committed an offence in order to support someone else’s drug habit.
People believe that prisons protect us from dangerous and violent crimes. In fact, there are far too many minor offenders serving short prison sentences that increase reoffending rates and draw people into more serious crime.
This is particularly true in women’s prisons. Most violent crime is committed by men. Women are far more likely to be criminalised than men for non-payment of a television licence, or when their children refuse to go to school. Women accounted for 74% of the 114,000 convictions for licence fee evasion in 2019, up three per cent since 2015. These 84,000 offences represented 30% of all convictions for women in that year compared with just four per cent of men’s convictions. Shoplifting and failing to pay television licence together make up 64% of female convictions.
The last twenty years or so have seen a dramatic rise in the number of women in prison. Most of the rise in the female prison population can be explained by a significant increase in the severity of sentences.
Sixty-six per cent of women prisoners are mothers of children under the age of 18, and each year it is estimated that more than 17,700 children are separated from their mothers by imprisonment. Only 5% of children remain in their own home once their mother has been sentenced. At least a third of mothers in prison are lone parents before imprisonment.
A Home Office study found that, for 85% of mothers, prison was the first time they had been separated from their children for a significant stretch.
Rather than funding mental health services, domestic violence services, help with addiction and increased employment, the government is announcing that it will fund the incarceration of women who are victims of capitalism and a threat to nobody.