Don’t build better prisons; build a better world!

According to a report released today, the culmination of two years study of women prisoners in HMP Drake Hall in England, 64 percent of the 173 women interviewed and analyzed were living with brain injury. 64% of women prisoners are living with brain injury. The overwhelming majority had sustained traumatic brain injury due to domestic violence. 96% of the women reported that they had experienced “domestic abuse victimization.” The report notes, “Women with undiagnosed brain injuries, without the provision of specialised and informed support, may struggle to engage in rehabilitation programmes necessary to reduce recidivism, resulting in a higher risk of reoffending.”

Brain injuries would cause women towards behaviors that would land them in jail, particularly “emotional dysregulation (inability to control anger, aggression).” Women end up in jail for short terms. Upon release, the women predictably return to jail within the next year. In jail, the behaviors associated with brain injury – poor memory, lack of concentration, slowness to process information, poor impulse control – keep women from succeeding in any way. It’s a perfect system of entrapment wedded to abandonment. What is left after all this? Damaged women, dead women. Women prisoners self-harm at a rate five times that of men prisoners. Year after year, studies show that for women in England and Wales, `safety in custody’ means harm, death, hopelessness. Much of this is old news.

What is new is the documented prevalence of brain injury among women prisoners. Part of the study involved the establishment of a Brain Injury Linkworker service, which provided the women with desperately needed assistance from trained professionals. While the results are positive and encouraging, there’s one glaring missing from the study. Should these women have been in prison in the first place? Many of the so-called offenses derive in large part from brain injury, and that only increases and intensifies with the repeat offenses. While installing a Brain Injury Linkworker service in every prison and jail, beginning with women’s prisons, is important, more important and immediate should be providing care and assistance to women before they ever enter the criminal justice universe. Perhaps, instead of building better prisons, we might try to build a better world. Another world is possible. 

(Image Credit: The Mental Elf)

Why does Wales insist on incarcerating so many women?

Wales, England and Scotland lead Western Europe in rates of incarceration

Today, the Wales Governance Centreat Cardiff University released a report, Sentencing and Immediate Custody in Wales: A Factfile. It’s the first report to disaggregate Wales incarceration figures from those of England. Wales has the highest incarceration rate in Western Europe, with England a close second. Wales comes in at 148 per 100,000; England at 141 per 100,000; Scotland at 135 per 100,000 and bursting at the seams. Northern Ireland lags with a mere 78 per 100,000. (The United States clocks in at 698 per 100,000). The numbers in Wales reflect a State criminal justice system that is deeply racist and misogynist. The report concludes, “While the discovery that Wales has the highest imprisonment rate in Western Europe is a cause of major concern, equally disturbing is that such an alarming trend has emerged in Wales without detection.” The alarming trend is “that non-White Welsh prisoners are overrepresented in prison and that the likelihood of receiving a short-term sentence is greater for those sentenced in Wales than in England.” Who receives the short-term sentences? Women.

Women: “Women are more likely to be given shorter custodial sentences than men. More than three quarters (78.6%) of all females sentenced to immediate custody in Wales between 2010 and 2017 were handed sentences of less than 12 months. This compared to 67% of male offenders sentenced in Wales during this period. The frequent use of short-term sentences often brings considerable `chaos and disruption’ to the lives of women and their families. Recent research has also shown that women sentenced to short-term custodial sentences are more likely to re-offend than those sentenced to a court order … One in four women (24.8%) sentenced to immediate custody in Wales were sentenced to a period of one month or less in prison between 2010 and 2017. This compared to a rate of 15.2% for men in Wales.”

At one level, none of this is new. England and Wales, taken together, have had the highest prison population rate in Western Europe since 1999Year after year after year, the incidence of women’s suicide and women’s self-harm while in custody has broken previous records. What is new is that Wales is worse, and that the cornerstone of being Incarcerator Number One is race and gender. The report does not provide intersectional data, for example the treatment of Black women in Wales, but one can only imagine that if it’s bad of Black people and it’s bad for women…

Why does Wales insist on incarcerating so many women? Protection. The State is [a] protecting women from themselves and [b] protecting women as vulnerable beings. Women are being arrested more often for minor offenses, and then are being imprisoned for short periods of time, all this despite volumes of research that document that short-term “custodial sentences” do not work. Put differently, they succeed in further and more deeply enmeshing women into prison networks. What is the mechanism that combines pipeline and revolving door? Ask the women of Wales. For women, living in Wales, “one of the poorest parts of the UK”, has become both a survival to prison pipeline and a never-ending and ever faster spinning revolving door. Tell the Welch government, tell the “justice agencies in Wales as well as civil society organisations and academic researchers” that living as a woman is not a crime.

(Infographic: BBC)

HM Prison Eastwood Park leading the nation in women prisoners’ self-harm barely receives attention?


In July, the Chief Inspector of Prisons for England and Wales released their annual report, and it was predictably grim, especially for women prisoners. Much of the news media in England, especially the local media, focused on the numbers concerning HMP Leeds, where each day sees around two women prisoners engaging in self-harm. In 2017, there were 712 `incidents’ of self-harm in Leeds, a 30% increase over the previous year, which saw 548 self-harm events. At Leeds women’s prison, 65 out of every 100 women is engaging in self-harm. Leeds is a bad place … but not the worst. Way down in any article on “the prison where self-harm incidents happen almost twice daily” would be a version of this nugget: “HMP Leeds was not the worst for self-harming however; Eastwood Park women’s prison in South Gloucestershire has the worst self-harm problem in the prison system. There were only 394 women on average at the prison in 2017/18 but there were 1,770 cases recorded in 2017.” Eastwood Park leads the nation in women prisoners’ self-harm, and somehow that’s not particularly important? Why?

In recent years, Eastwood Park has hosted a number of women prisoner deaths that have garnered some attention. In 2013, Natasha Evans collapsed in her cell. At the inquest, two years later, expert testimony suggested that Natasha Evans died because of lack, or systematic refusal, of appropriate care. Since 2013, six more women prisoners have suffered non-self-inflicted deaths at Eastwood Park. Most recently, in June 2016, Michalla Sweeting choked to death on her own vomit. Michalla Sweeting arrived in Eastwood Park after three days in police custody. She was put on a methadone detox program. She started vomiting, staff noted that and did nothing, she died. This May, two years later, the inquest jury found that Michalla Sweeting died of gross negligence committed by prison and healthcare staff.

That’s the same prison and healthcare staff that supposedly is addressing the “complex needs” of Eastwood Park prison population. In 2016, seven women died inside Eastwood Park. Three of those were “self-inflicted deaths.” In 2017, no one died in Eastwood Park … but the self-harm continues.

There are no women’s prisons in Wales, and so Welch women are sent to primarily to Eastwood Park and to HMP Styal, another hellhole. Eastwood Park holds a little over 400 prisoners, of whom 40% are from Wales, which means their families and home communities are far away. Eastwood Park is supposed to have a mother-and-baby unit. In November 2016, it was reported as temporarily closed. Today, two years later, it’s still closed. Eastwood Park is hard on everyone, and particularly on Welch women and on mothers.

The rate of self-harm in Eastwood Park is 449 incidents per 100 prisoners. In 2017, there were 1,770 incidents. While that’s down from the record high of 2016, it’s the second highest number of incidents of self-harm since 2010. “On average, there were four incidents of self-harm a day at HMP Eastwood Park in 2017.”

On January 2017, the Chief Inspector of Prisons reported on Eastwood Park: “The population remained vulnerable; many women were a long way from home, which was a problem for the large number who had dependent children. Nearly half of the women had a disability, and over three quarters reported mental health or emotional well-being issues. Eighty-four per cent of women said they had various problems on arrival at the prison, and over half said this included issues with drugs, while over a third reported having alcohol problems. Levels of self-harm had increased and were overall relatively high.”

Against this backdrop, the Inspector concluded, “We still considered Eastwood Park to be a well-led, generally safe and decent prison, but it was showing signs of being under strain. Staffing levels had not kept pace with the rise in population, nor with its increasing complexity.”

Nineteen months later, the rate of self-harm is four per day, and 449 incidents per 100 women. That’s safety and decency in a State committed to locking women up. It’s not the prison that’s under strain; it’s women, and the strain is public policy. In July, the Inspector noted, “The number of women prisoners is growing for the first time since 2012, putting a strain on the system and emphasising the need for a strategy for women’s prisons …  The high rate of self-harm among women prisoners is indicative of the very complex needs of many women.”

The Inspector noted that the two women’s prisons inspected “were not doing enough to address the very complex needs of women prisoners.” Not doing enough. Very complex needs. This is the language of neoliberal State alibi that suggests, implicitly, that the reason women prisoners have rising, and astronomical, rates and incidences of self-harm is the set of “very complex needs.” This is nonsense. The State refuses to address women’s needs and, even more, women’s lives, and that is reason for the rates and numbers of women prisoners’ self-harm. Period. At HMP Eastwood Park, women self-harm four times a day, every day, and absolutely no one cares. If we did, we’d stop it.

 

(Photo Credit: Gloucestershire Live)

Where were you when all those women prisoners killed themselves?

Women prisoners protest at HMP Styal

Women prisoners protest at HMP Styal

Today’s news out of England and Wales is predictably grim: “2016 becomes worst year ever recorded for suicides in prisons.” According to the Howard League, “The Howard League for Penal Reform has been notified of 102 people dying by suicide behind bars since the beginning of 2016 – one every three days. With five weeks remaining until the end of the year, it is already the highest death toll in a calendar year since current recording practices began in 1978. The previous high was in 2004, when 96 deaths by suicide were recorded.” And so now another end-of-year Round of Concern occurs. Absolutely none of this is new, and absolutely nothing positive will happen until the concern is manifested by more than the usual suspects.

From incarcerated refugee women in India to women prisoners in Australia, Belgium, Canada, Den- mark, England and Wales, Finland, Ireland, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Scotland, and Sweden to women in prisons in the United States and Canada, the news is and has been the same, and for quite a while. Reporting on suicide rates in Canada in 1999, scholars noted, “The fact remains, however, that the suicide rate among female prisoners is abnormally high.” In 2010, scholars reported, “In England and Wales over a quarter of a century, suicide rates in prisoners were reported to be approximately five times higher in men than age-standardised general population rates.” And here it is, the end of 2016, “with around 3,900, mainly vulnerable, women locked up in English jails and 19 deaths already recorded this year (the highest for 12 years)” … and that was three weeks ago.

Today, the Howard League and the Centre for Mental Health released Preventing Prison Suicide, “the latest in a series of reports published by the two charities as part of a joint programme aimed at saving lives in prison.” Frances Crook, the chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, wrote, “Whilst the government has promised (yet again) to recruit additional staff, we cannot wait months for them to appear, especially as such promises have proved empty in the past. The only way to save lives, make prisons safe for inmates and staff and help people to live law abiding lives on release is to reduce the number of prisoners. Once the number of prisoners is down, the challenge is to make prisons work properly in the public interest but that is such a distant prospect at the moment. Today’s challenge is simply to keep people alive.”

Scotland said NO! to the casual wreckage of women’s lives and provided alternatives, which include tearing down many women’s prisons, sending women who need help to places where they will receive assistance and where their dignity, as women, will be respected. Women don’t have to be sacrificed on the altar of carceral efficiency in which the challenge is simply to keep people alive. How have we arrived at a place where the challenge is simply to keep people alive? By turning our backs on the imprisoned women. Suicides in prisons and jails have risen more or less steadily over the past decade, at least, and that rise has been noted and documented, occasionally deplored, and then generally forgotten. Now is the time to stop forgetting, to remember in advance what you will say when someone, years from or tomorrow or tonight, looks at you and asks, “Where were you when all those women prisoners killed themselves? What did you? What have we done?”

 

 

(Photo Credit: New Statesman / Don McPhee/ Guardian)

#SistersUncut: In England women reject austerity’s gendered death sentence

On Sunday, November 20, women shut down major bridges in London, Bristol, Newcastle and Glasgow, to protest recent drastic cuts in domestic violence services, a decade of cuts in domestic violence services, and, more generally the State’s pogrom against Black and Minority Ethnic, or BME, women, lesbians, immigrant and migrant women, poor and working women. Sisters Uncut organized the action to put the State on notice: “Theresa May claims she wants to end violence against women and girls. To do that we need an awful lot more than refuges. We need a long term, sustainable funding plan for all domestic violence services. We need universal access to benefits so survivors have the resources to escape, rather than policies like the benefit cap which are making it even harder when already 52% of survivors report that they can’t afford to leave. We need domestic violence support services for black and brown, disabled and LGBT+ survivors – a `one size fits all’ generic approach might save money but it doesn’t meet needs. We need funding for outreach workers who are able to slowly build up survivors’ confidence over time and support survivors before the danger escalates, rather than a focus solely on crisis response. We need an end to gentrification and the devastating effects it has on communities; not all survivors want or are able to access support services, and it is their neighbours that provide their lifeline. And we must see the links between violent, racist government policies and the increased risk for black, brown, Muslim and migrant women experiencing domestic violence. We demand a secure, long term plan to support ALL domestic violence survivors, regardless of immigration status, with specialist services for black and brown, disabled and LGBT+ survivors.

When it comes to services for domestic violence services, the grimness of the numbers is only exceeded by the viciousness of the program that has established them. In September, Women’s Aid reported the Government’s plan would force 67% of specialist domestic abuse refuges in England to close, and that 87% of refuges in England would be forced to reduce their current level of provision. In Wales, 69% of refuges would be forced to close, and 100% would have to seriously reduce their current level of provision. Because migrants are restricted from using public funds, migrant non-binary people women are turned away from refuges, social housing, benefits or healthcare. How do you want your pain and suffering, slow and torturous or fast and torturous? Welcome to the economies of torture.

Marcia Smith, a domestic violence survivor, remembered: “When I went to the police with bruises, they said they couldn’t see my bruises because I was black. People don’t see black women as victims, and we get racism instead of help. With black services, you don’t have racism, you have the trust and support you need.” Is it any wonder that 90% of BME survivors prefer to receive support from a specialist BME organization?

Sisters Uncut declared an end to the destruction of women’s lives: “We will not stand by as black and brown survivors are left stranded in abusive homes without the bridges to safety provided by specialist domestic violence services, whilst migrant survivors with ‘no recourse to public funds’ find all of their bridges blocked by the government’s immigration policies.”

You block our bridges, so we block yours. Just prior to Theresa May’s Autumn Statement, where she will reveal the new budget, Sisters Uncut declared it time for Women’s Spring, and in doing so, joined women in the past few months in France, Argentina, Poland, South Africa who themselves joined the women water protectors at Standing Rock in the United States and Grassy Narrows in Canada, and beyond. It’s time, it’s way past time: “To those in power, our message is this: your cuts are sexist, your cuts are dangerous, and you think that you can get away with them because you have targeted the people who you perceive as powerless. We are those people, we are women, we will not be silenced. We stand united and fight together, and together we will win.”

 

(Photo Credit 1: Broadly / Alice Zoo) (Photo Credit 2: The Fader / Holly Falconer)

 

 

 

 

The illegal, systemic physical abuse of children in prison, sanctioned by the State

Ten years ago, the Howard League for Penal Reform released a report, the Carlile Inquiry, into the use of restraint, solitary confinement and strip-searching in penal institutions for children. This inquiry was inspired by the death in prison of Gareth Myatt, “a 15-year-old boy who weighed just seven stone, while being restrained by officers in Rainsbrook Secure Training Centre.” The report described a hell of vicious violence visited upon children’s bodies, psyches and souls. Today, the Howard League for Penal Reform released a ten-year follow up: “There is illegal, systemic physical abuse of children in prison, sanctioned by the state.” Ten years of civil society and governmental austerity and punitiveness have led to this: the State has built an expanding and intensifying hell for children.

In prison, in contravention of all laws, children are routinely restrained to get them to follow directions. “Techniques” that inflict deliberate pain on children make up over a third of all “approved techniques”, all of which are illegal. Between 2011 and 2015, children have been injured 4,350 times while being restrained. Solitary confinement, 23 hours a day in isolation, has become widespread: “Conditions in segregation units have not improved since 2006, when the Carlile Inquiry described them as `little more than bare, dark and dank cells that exacerbate underlying risks and vulnerabilities’. Segregation units should be immediately closed.” Again, the use of solitary confinement, especially long term, is completely illegal, and that illegality makes absolutely no difference whatsoever.

The “real story” is in the numbers. In the last five years, the number of children in custody has dropped. In the same five years, the rate of restraint has more than doubled.

What does the continued violation of the law say? What do the numbers add up to? In England, as in other countries that drank and then guzzled the Incarceration Kool-Aid, the will to punish morphed ineluctably into the will to harm. It’s an old story, now fueled by the political economies of neoliberal development and protectionism. Meanwhile, Gareth Myatt becomes Adam Rickwood becomes Joseph Scholes; and Rainsbrook becomes Medway, and the whole State-run theater of cruelty moves faster, farther, and more deeply.

Last year, children’s rights campaigner Carolyne Willow argued, “Nobody has ever designed a prison to make children feel valued, to treat them well and change their lives. It desperately needs a minister with the compassion and courage to change things. We closed workhouses, asylums and orphanages, let’s get rid of child prisons. Let us say, we are not going to do this to children any more.”

We are not going to do this to children any more.

Today’s report concludes: “Children are being harmed in prisons today and steps to ensure their safety must be taken immediately. We know what works – as the Carlile Inquiry found 10 years ago, small, local units that have a record of success in providing the best care and rehabilitation for the few children who require a period in a secure environment. Prisons and the privately-run secure training centres should be closed down forthwith. We do not need to reinvent the wheel or repeat the mistakes of the past.”

What will next year’s report conclude, and the one ten years on? We are not going to do this to children any more … anywhere. Prisons and the privately-run secure training centers must be closed down forthwith. Today. We cannot keep doing this to children.

 

(Image Credit: The Howard League for Penal Reform)

Suicides in prisons in England and Wales hit 25-year high, and who cares?

From a demonstration outside Styal prison, August 2008, to remember all the women who had died there. Styal is still open, and women are still dying therein.

Today, the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Justice released Safety in Custody Statistics England and Wales / Deaths in prison custody to March 2016. To absolutely no one’s surprise, the numbers are bad, the worst in 25 years. One hundred people committed suicide in prisons across England and Wales, in the twelve months between March 2015 and March 2016. Last year, according to the Howard League for Penal Reform, the Prison and Probation Ombudsman for England and Wales, and the House of Commons Justice Committee, prison suicides in England and Wales reached a seven-year high. Last year, the Ombudsman found a 64% increase in self-inflicted deaths in custody over the previous year. Additionally, “there were self-inflicted deaths at 53 different prisons, 56% more than the previous year. This included prisons where there had not been self-inflicted deaths for many years, sometimes ever.” In February 2016, the Ombudsman published a “Learning Lessons Bulletin” on prisoner suicide within the first month of custody: “It is a sadness to me that this bulletin repeats learning that I have frequently published elsewhere, about staff not spotting or using essential information about risk of suicide. This suggests that lessons still need to be learned.” The sadness goes deeper and broader than repetition and not learning. The sadness is that the bodies pile up and nobody cares.

Today’s report notes that prison suicides have soared from 79 last year to 100 this year, a 27% increase, and that prison suicide make up a little over one-third of prison deaths. Further, “the rate of self-inflicted deaths had reached its peak in the time series in the 12 months to March 2003 of 1.5 per 1,000 prisoners. After a period of fluctuations from 2004 to 2008, the self-inflicted death rate had stabilised until 2013. Subsequently the rate began to rise again to the highest point, since the prior peak, in the most recent 12 months ending March 2016 of 1.2 per 1,000 prisoners.”

While today’s report does not distinguish between men and women prisoners who have `successfully’ committed suicide, its profile of self-harm in the same period is telling: “When considering females, despite the falls seen between 2009 and 2012, rates of individuals self-harming among females remain disproportionately high in comparison to the overall rates of individuals self-harming … Females accounted for nearly a quarter of self-harm incidents in this reporting period, but only make up less than 5% of the prison population.”

None of this is surprising, and that’s the point. Critics say the system is in meltdown; it’s not. The system is working perfectly. Every year, a report comes out and some ask why the numbers continue to spike. Every year, the staff is blamed or the community or the individual prisoners. Every year, “safety in custody” is measured in suicide and self harm, and no one asks about well being and absolutely no one asks if those who die and hurt themselves in the pursuit of their own deaths belong behind bars in the first place. Every year, the public budgets for mental health are cut more deeply, and the butchers mutter in surprise at the “decrepit state” of the prisons and those who live and die therein.

Here there are no lessons to learn. These deaths are a station on a global assembly line at which employees dutifully stand and wait for the next body to ignore. The prisons of England and Wales are one tiny part of the global labor of necropower: “I have put forward the notion of necropolitics and necropower to account for the various ways in which, in our contemporary world, … new and unique forms of social existence in which vast populations are subjected to conditions of life conferring upon them the status of living dead … Under conditions of necropower, the lines between resistance and suicide, sacrifice and redemption, martyrdom and freedom are blurred.”

It is a sadness frequently published elsewhere.

 

(Photo Credit: Indymedia UK)

Why the number of prisoners committing suicide rose so sharply last year

 

Last year, prison suicides in England and Wales reached a seven-year high, according to the Howard League for Penal Reform, the Prison and Probation Ombudsman for England and Wales, and the House of Commons Justice Committee. For all three, this dubious accomplishment parallels cuts in prison staff, harsher prison regimes, and various `efficiencies’ imposed across the so-called justice system. Add to that cuts in public health and housing services. Austerity kills.

The Ombudsman’s most recent report, Learning from PPO Investigations: self-inflicted deaths of prisoners – 2013/14, found a 64% increase in self-inflicted deaths in custody over the previous year. While that number captured a bit of attention, here’s a paragraph that many overlooked: “There were self-inflicted deaths at 53 different prisons, 56% more than the previous year. This included prisons where there had not been self-inflicted deaths for many years, sometimes ever.” Under austerity measures, the Empire of Prison Suicides has expanded rapidly and hungrily.

The Empire has expanded both geographically and demographically. Who are the ones who perished `at their own hands’? “In 2013/14, the prisoners who died were significantly less likely to have been convicted or charged with violent and sexual offences. There was also a significant increase in deaths among those serving short sentences of less than six months.”

Most of the prisoners who committed suicide were in their first month of custody. More had spent less than two hours out of their cell in the days before their deaths. Not `hardened’ nor `violent’ nor `in for long’. In other words, more or less ordinary people.

Frances Cook, Executive Director of the Howard League, noted, “No one should be so desperate whilst they are in the care of the state that they take their own life. The numbers hide the true extent of misery inside prisons and for families. It is particularly tragic that teenagers and other young people have died by their own hand in our prisons and we should all be ashamed that this happened.”

The tragedy is in the deaths, not the ages, and we should indeed all be ashamed. The State is not ashamed. As a Justice Committee report last week noted, “The prison system in England and Wales has one of the highest incarceration levels in Europe, standing at 149 per 100,000 people.” The report noted that when Justice Secretary Grayling was presented with the rising tide of suicide, his response was to blame society. On the question of suicides, the Justice Committee report concluded, “The Ministry told us they had looked hard for evidence of factors which could be causing an increase in suicide rates, self-harm and levels of assault in prisons. Worryingly, they had not managed to arrive at any hypothesis as to why this has taken place. In our view it is not possible to avoid the conclusion that the confluence of estate modernisation and re-configuration, efficiency savings, staffing shortages, and changes in operational policy, including to the Incentives and Earned Privileges scheme, have made a significant contribution to the deterioration in safety.”

We should all be ashamed, and we should all be worried, worried about States that have looked and refuse to see, refuse to see unavoidable conclusions and, even more, refuse to see the humanity in each of us. Global leaders of incarceration, such as the United Kingdom and the United States, have gained their ascendancy by stuffing more and more people into prisons and jails, and then expressing shock and dismay when the conditions of confinement push prisoners to self-harm and suicide. A war on crime turns whole populations into `a problem’ and entire neighborhoods into lands belonging to no one. It’s a kind of genocide by erasure.

In the United Kingdom last year, almost all those prisoners who killed themselves did so by hanging. They turned the belittling spectacle of their erasure into one last spectacle of sacrifice. While the State spokespeople express dismay, and the State accountants chalk it up as another efficiency, the various gods of justice and humanity look on and weep.

 

(Image Credit: rs21.org.uk)

For women in England and Wales, `safety in custody’ means harm, death, hopelessness

On Thursday, the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Justice issued its Safety in custody quarterly update to September 2014. The report is grim. In 2014, 84 people killed themselves `in custody’ in England and Wales That’s the highest figure in seven years and an increase of 12% over the year before. The rise in suicide is surpassed by the rise in self-harm, up more than 25%. Overall, it was a banner year for the prison state, with 243 deaths in custody: “The 243 deaths in prison custody was an increase of 28 on 2013 and is the highest number of deaths recorded in a calendar year. This increase has been the result of both natural cause and self-inflicted death.”

Wrong.

The increase has been the result of rapidly rising prison populations, decreased access to mental health and other services, overworked prison staffs, and the general toxic soup that goes under the genteel name of `austerity.’

For ten years, the prison population has increased. The rise in prison suicides has more or less kept pace with that rise, but the rise is self-harm far exceeds the rise in population. And that’s where gender kicks in. Of the 84 people who committed suicide, three were women, up a bit from the one in 2013, but still low. Self-harm, on the other, is another story. According to the Ministry’s report, “Females are more likely to self-harm than males.”

Women make up 5% of the prison population and 27% of the incidents of self-harm in prison, over the past year. Where men had 222 incidents of self-harm per 1000 male prisoners, women had 277 per 1000 female prisoners. Even more telling, of those men who engaged in self-harm, each did so 2.8 times. Of those women prisoners who engaged in self-harm, each individual did so 6.2 times within a twelve-month period.

This what passes for safety in custody. As Frances Cook, of the Howard League, noted, concerning the rate of suicide in prison, “The numbers hide the true extent of misery inside prisons and for families.”

While the gender maths didn’t make headlines, they should have. As Soroptimist UK Programme Action Committee along with the Prison Reform Trust have noted, too many women are being sent to prison [a] for too little cause,[b] for too long, when [c] they could easily receive alternative sentences in their home communities. Furthermore, women prisoners know what the deal is when they leave prison: fewer than one in 10 women released from a prison sentence of under 12 months managed to secure a ‘positive employment outcome’ within a year of release, three times worse than the equivalent figure for men. Once in, there’s no way out.

There has to be a way out, and it begins with closing a so-called justice system that reflexively sends increasing numbers of women into overcrowded and often distant prisons for little or no reasons. If women are committing self-harm six times in a year, the problem is not `criminal justice.’ The problem is the criminal denial of access to health care. There is no justice where, for women, “safety in custody” means hopelessness, self-harm, and suicide.

 

(Image Credit: The Mental Elf)

England’s vicious assault on women awaiting trial

Around the world, people suffer the overuse of pre-trial detention. Too many people are kept for too long, often in violation of national Constitutions and laws. Second, too many people are kept in prison lock-ups, which are not equipped to handle diverse populations. This often means children are held with adults; men and women are held in the same space; remand prisoners and convicted prisoners are held together, and the list goes on. It’s a global crisis, and it’s getting worse by the day.

In England and Wales, this presumption of guilt has particular gendered aspects:

In England and Wales, about a third of men and half of women remanded to pretrial detention are poor enough to receive council housing benefits. … In England and Wales, half of men and two-thirds of women who were employed at the time of arrest lost their jobs as a result of their pretrial detention.”

While the ratios may not be shocking, they bear reflection. How does the so-called criminal justice system, and the State of which it is an ever-growing part, address the gender imbalance? How does the State respond to half of the women being in need of assistance and two-thirds of the women workers losing their jobs as a result of pre-trial detention?

A 2009 report noted that, in the preceding decade, the number of women in English and Welsh prisons had increased by 60%, compared to 28% for men. Much of this rise was due to revised sentencing rules, or better, the intersection of the State will-to-incarcerate and the political economic war on women. Here’s what that looks like.

Between 1997 and 2007, there was a 40% increase in the number of women in prison awaiting trial. In the same period, men prisoners awaiting trial decreased by 11%. More than 40% of women prisoners awaiting trial have attempted suicide at some point in their lives; for men that number is a little over 25%. Nearly two-thirds of women remand prisoners suffer from depression, a figure far higher than that of sentenced women prisoners. Half of all women on remand receive no visits from their family (for men, that number is 25%).

An earlier report by the Inspectorate of Prisons for England and Wales noted that, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, 65% of women had lost their jobs because of detention, and only 11% expected to have a job on release. This compared with 51% of men losing their jobs and 18% expecting to have a job upon release. Between 2000 and 2009, the numbers for women only worsened.

For decades, British public policy has wreaked havoc on women’s lives by eliminating mental health assistance, severely limiting housing and other forms of assistance, and increasing and intensifying “opportunities for arrest”. More women are arrested, held, receive little to no proper attention, receive little to no preparation for trial, lose their jobs, communities, support network, and, often, lives, and for what? Who has benefited from this decades long vicious assault on women’s lives? When innocence is gutted, who profits?

 

(Image Credit: Open Society Foundations)