Women and Prison

The numbers of women in prison are small at any one time (about 1,800-2,000 during the 1990s) and form a very small percentage of the total population in prison (30:1). Many women in prison are there as untried or unsentenced prisoners, and it has been argued, since many of the former are not subsequently imprisoned, that women are subject to punitive remands (Heidensohn, 1985). In England and Wales women constitute under 2,000 of prisoners at any one time out of some 50,000.

In central systems such as France and the United Kingdom, they are concentrated in larger units and are often removed from family and friends (Cario, 1985; Hedenson, 1991). Following the failure of a few initiatives, Zedner points out that when women are the subject of special penal treatment, it frequently results in the development of benevolently repressive regimes for them and fails to provide skills which could aid rehabilitation.

Additionally such programmes tend to be determined by assumed characteristics and needs of women rather than well explored evidence. A recent example of this is the re-building of Holloway Prison for women in Britain during the 1970s on the assumption that women offenders were physically or mentally sick or both but it was finally deemed to have an unsatisfactory design and lack of adequate psychiatric facilities (Carlen, 1985; Badel & Stevenson, 1988; Rock, 1996).

Women in prison are less likely to receive good education, training and job opportunities and more likely to have to carry out domestic tasks with the notion that they need additional pressures to conform and be rehabilitated (Carlen, 1983; Dobash & Dobash, 1986). In Britain women perceive the pains of imprisonment as harsher and react with much greater vehemence against them (Hedenson, 1975 and 1980; Casale, 1989; Mandaraka-Shepherd, 1986; Carlen, 1985) and a higher proportion are charged with disciplinary offences, doses of tranquillisers prescribed are higher and there is a significant incidence of self-mutilation.

In summary, women's experiences of the whole of the criminal justice system is rife with contradiction and several writers have suggested that especially the police transfer their low evaluation of women as victims to women as offenders and respond to them as women and thus as inferior (Jones, 1987; Dunhill, 1989) . Much of the sense of injustice felt by women who come before the courts stems from their perceptions of such agencies as male dominated and unsympathetic (Hedenson, 1986; Scutt, 1981).

However, the attitudes of courts are by no means consistent and vary according to the age, ethnic background, social class and whether a woman has herself been a victim (Schlesinger et al, 1992). Reviewing the considerable body of work on women's experiences in prison reveals diversity, complexity and sometimes contradiction. Clearly there are certain gender specific forms of discrimination rife in the administration of justice and the structures in which it operates.

It raises queries about unstated patriarchal values and has led to spirited calls for new approaches to justice (Klein, 1995). Dobash and Dobash put it that it is impossible to use the law and legal apparatus to confront patriarchal domination and oppression when the language and procedures of these social processes and institutions are saturated with patriarchal beliefs and structures (1992).

Arguments both about chivalry afforded to women and about their being, under some circumstances, more punitively dealt with, have been discussed in modern academic and popular debate (Kennedy, 1992). Evidence on the topic is however patchy and conclusions are necessarily tentative but seem to indicate the need for a systematic approach. Issues of justice are hard to resolve and come down to whether it should be the offender or the offence that provides the primary focus.