Does prison meet the needs of prisoners?

Prisoners in Britain come in all forms: men, women, black, white, Asian, young, old, disabled, Christian, catholic and Muslim. Naturally, they all have different needs but the question is, can prison in today's contemporary society cater for all of the different types of prisoner? Women represent only a small minority of the prison population, and this is true on both a global and national scale. At January 2000, in England and Wales, there were 3,240 female prisoners, which represented 5. 1% of the prison population. This figure puts the female prison population at its highest since 1905 (Devlin 1998).

Devlin argues that women become 'invisible' as soon as they pass through the prison gates as they are subsumed into a world that is predominantly masculine and insensitive to their very different needs. Since feminism really flowered in the 1970's studies have shown the criminal justice system to be patriarchal, stereotyping women at all stages of the process. Women are said to be particularly more vulnerable in prison because many of them are in jail for their first time and most of them will not have expected to have been given a custodial sentence according to 'Managing the needs of female prisoners', commissioned by the Home Office.

Devlin found that the women in her studies highlighted many of the things that need to be changed in prisons that cater for women. Heavily pregnant women were transported to court or Mother and Baby Units (MBU'S) in unsafe 'sweatboxes' or security vans and there was minimal access to any means of solving outside problems, such as childcare, accommodation and dealing with social services. Almost 50% of women were primary carers before imprisonment (National Prison Survey 1991as cited in Devlin 1998) contrasted with 32% of men.

The Howard League for Penal Reform has long campaigned against the mothers of young children being sent to jail, except in the cases of high risk women, and then only as a very last resort. They have shifted the focus from the mother to the child, citing the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child, which says that the best interests of the child 'should be paramount'. In a 1995 report the League stated that ''the psychological, emotional and material damage done to these women's children and subsequently to society, surely outweighs any perceived benefits enjoyed by the state when imprisoning mothers''.

Regardless, women are often in a position where they have no childcare arranged and do not have phones or temporary release to sort out such matters. Women in some cases are allowed temporary release to deal with issues like these but the problem is that the vast majority of imprisoned women are remand prisoners and automatically classed as category B, which means that they cannot be risk assessed for temporary release until after sentencing. Women have always been disproportionately disadvantaged because most women are only in prison for a very short time.

There are many other problems women encounter in prison, such as having access to see their children, 'anniversary syndrome', (whereby the become depressed and at risk on important dates in their lives like children's birthdays), and medical problems. Women reported being denied a smear test, painkillers for menstrual pain and help dealing with migraines, which are three times more common in women than men. Women are by no means the only minority group within prisons. There have been many problems associated with prisoners of certain ethnic minorities.

The Prison Service statement on race relations includes the declaration that 'the prison service is committed absolutely to a policy of racial equality and to the elimination of discrimination in all aspects of its work' (HM Prison Service 1997 cited in Bryans & Jones 2001). Racial equality is an important issue for the Prison Service, both for staff and prisoners. In December 1998, of those staff whose ethnicity is recorded, only 0. 5% of governor grades, 2. 5% of prison officers and 5. 2% of other staff were from non-white ethnic groups.

This is in sharp contrast to the prisoner population where around 18% are from non-white ethnic groups (HM Prison Service 1999 cited in Bryan & Jones 2001). For years ethnic groups have been over represented in prisons and currently ethnic minority groups make up 5. 5% of the total population in England and Wales but constitute some 17% of the male prison population and 24% of the female prison population. Every penal establishment has a Race Relations Liaison Officer (RRLO) who is the key point of contact for all race relations issues.

The RRLO will also provide information to staff and prisoners on national and local policies and will monitor race relations within the establishment. The RRLO has an especially important role to play as a link between prisoners, staff and the Race Relations Management Team (RRMT). He/she should act as a source of information to both prisoners and staff and be prepared, where necessary to discuss complaints of a racially sensitive nature with prisoners. There has been considerable debate about whether black and white offenders experience imprisonment in different ways.

The experience of confinement will be conditioned by the levels of solidarity among different ethnic groups, their subcultural backgrounds and the power relations within the prison itself, involving not only interpersonal relations and systems of control but also the design and management of the prison. The internal power relations among prisoners will affect the distribution of work, for forms of interpersonal support and the experience of bullying and intimidation (Bryan & Jones 2001).