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Articles - Gender issues
Written by Alasdair Cant   
Friday, 14 November 2008 16:32


by Alasdair Cant.

It is impossible to put an exact figure on the number of drug using women who come into contact with the criminal justice system, for the same reason that it is impossible to assess the exact proportion of drug users - because of the illegal and stigmatised nature of drug use. However, there are findings, both anecdotal and researched that give us some indication as to how drug using women are faring in the criminal justice system.

About prisons, Oscar Wilde said:

"..every prison that men build Is built with bricks of shame, And bound with bars lest Christ should see How men their brothers maim."

The term brothers in the last line is interesting. Historically, it is a true reflection of the gender imbalance in the prison population. Increasingly, however, 'brothers and sisters' would be more accurate. Although there are still far more men imprisoned than women, approximately four per cent of the adult prison population in the UK are women, the number of women in prison has been rising steadily in recent years.

In England and Wales, sentencing has become harsher, and women have been caught up by this trend. The 17 per cent rise in the number of women in prison compared to this time last year, reflects an overall trend in sentencing. The female prison population in March, stood at just under 2,000, an increase of around 11 per cent in 12 months. Contrary to popular belief, this is not due to any rising tide of female violence, least of all 'girl gangs'. This is, if I may use a little more alliteration, a media myth. According to the Prison Service, the number of women sent to prison for motoring offences has doubled in the past year, while those imprisoned for drug-related crimes has fallen by one third. The biggest single factor that results in women being given custodial sentences, is still that of non-payment of fines, which accounts for about a third of the women being jailed.

I wish to look at the thorny issue of sentencing, and in particular at the disparity in sentencing between men and women. We have to look carefully at this whole question, because the danger is to give a simplistic answer, which could then give rise to wrong assumptions.

The extent to which sentencers, and especially judges are predominantly men, is well catalogued. This situation has not improved much over the last few years, in spite of much publicity over this discrepancy. The scenario runs much along these lines:

A woman appears in the dock, looking down at heel, and evidently an established drug user. The male sentencer (wearing de rigueur half moon spectacles) is shocked at extent to which this woman has deviated from the 'normal path'. Normal to him, is a subjective judgement about how women should appear and behave. Hence he gives a harsher sentence than he might give to an equivalent male defendant.

Is this borne out by research and observation? Release has certainly observed that, in terms of sentencing alone, women are discriminated against in the courts on occasions, but not always. There have been instances, especially for first time offenders, where women drug users have seemed to get particularly harsh sentences. So, yes, this scenario does occur- in a variety of different shades and variations. But as in many situations where stereotyping is prevalent, it is not the whole picture.

Conversely, the Release legal advisers are aware that women do sometimes get treated more leniently by the courts. There may be convincing reasons why she should not go to prison, and in circumstances where it hangs in the balance, good legal representation and effective court report writing has made all the difference. Anyone who has been in a court of law will recognise that it is an artificial setting, designed to raise the stature of some, and humble the others. In blunt terms, it is something of a 'game', and I use this word with caution, because I don't wish to trivialise the seriousness of attending court, but rather draw attention to the fact that doing and saying the correct things is often in the best interests of the defendant. Women do seem to take on board better than men the hidden rules of attending a court - deferring to the court, dressing smartly, being polite to the bench and so on. However, this is anecdotal observation. What about evidence in research?

Criminal statistics across time and cultures, show that an overwhelming majority of those caught, convicted and sentenced by the courts are male. As well as this, numerous pieces of research, including findings from feminist criminology, suggest that men are more likely than women to receive custodial sentences for equivalent offences. According to most recent Home Office statistics, however, the notable exception to this is for drug offences, where the proportion of males to females sentenced to custody is roughly equal.

In the case of cautioning, the same situation seems to apply, where a conviction is the most common outcome for female offenders. In 1992, 61 per cent of all females convicted or cautioned for indictable offences received a caution, compared with 36 per cent of males. Women had higher cautioning rates across all age groups and most offences, but yet again, the exception to this was where drugs are involved.

So what do we make of this? Statistically, it does seem that where drugs and women are concerned, they buck the overall trend of women getting more lenient sentences from the courts. However, we must be very wary of drawing immediate conclusions from this. There are still too many unknowns. To properly research sentencing, many more factors must be taken into account, such as a detailed analysis of each case, taking previous offending, aggravating/mitigating circumstances and so on into account. My own observation in our local magistrates court makes me a little sceptical of research. The reason is that the character of the magistrates sentencing is as different as you are likely to find anywhere in London. One magistrate is renown for his harsh sentencing, and indeed demonstrated how in touch with reality he was by stopping court proceedings to ask what a can of Lilt is! The other is much more lenient, and I have heard him once suggesting to one defendent that he felt 10 pounds a week was too much to pay, and 5 per week over a longer period was much more realistic. Hence, someone tried in court on Monday afternoon might get a very different sentence from someone tried in court on Tuesday morning for exactly the same offence. Such factors must surely make accurate research nigh on impossible.

In trying to analyse the significance of data about women drug users in the criminal justice system, it is easy to lose sight of important overall concerns. It does seem for example that female drug users are discriminated against in the courts, but drug users generally are misrepresented and discriminated against in our society. Where should we direct our energies and resources to counter this?

Secondly, is there equally suitable provision for women as for men throughout the criminal justice system? In a system which deals largely with male offenders, the needs of women offenders are often not effectively addressed. An investigation by HM Inspectorate of Probation in 1991 found that a limited range of community penalties are available for women in some areas. This has been an on-going situation and probation officers often complain to me about the lack of provision for women. There are only a handful of bail hostels in the country that are for women only. There is Crowley House in Birmingham, where women are taken with children, but this serves a massive area. There is also Adelaide House in Liverpool and Kelley House in Camden, London. That is pitifully little provision for the whole of England and Wales. Proximity to men in custody, whether in a bail hostel or in prison, can be very distressing. The men may have records of violence, and research by the charity Women in Prison, shows that a high proportion of women prisoners have been victimised and abused by men. In mixed bail hostels, for example, out of 26 residents, it is quite usual for there to be only about four women

It is little wonder then, that where the question of custody hangs in the balance for drug using women, it often swings towards custody because of inadequate provision outside. Imaginative remand schemes that divert women from crime and custody by developing community-based programmes must be encouraged. I can cite one example as the Holloway Remand Scheme in London. Its function is to closely match and utilise community resources for selected women offenders. These resources include residential drug and alcohol rehabilitation programmes, but we are all too aware that one of the difficulties facing field probation officers is finding suitable resources for women in the community.

In considering prisons, the report on Styal prison and young offender institution for women, received a lot of publicity. The fact that drugs are used in prison is no longer headline news, but when this report was released, it received a lot of attention. In fact, it received more media attention in one week than the plight of foreign nationals being held in custody for drug trafficking offences (a staggering 35 per cent in one of the largest women's prisons in England) received over 18 months. I believe the reason for such interest in drugs in Styal was for two reasons. Firstly, the public is not aware of the extent of drug use among women, as it conflicts with the stereotyped image. Secondly, the extent of use as reported, took everyone by surprise, including those in the drugs field. The report by Dr Malcolm Faulk states:

"Inmates asserted, and staff agreed, that drugs were freely available in Styal, mainly brought in by visitors and by inmates who had been on home leave. They said that almost all inmates used cannabis, in addition to which 80 per cent used opiates (mainly heroin), 50 per cent cocaine/crack,15-20 per cent amphetamines, ten per cent LSD occasionally and 60 per cent benzodiazepines (mainly Temazepam). It was believed that 60 per cent of those who injected used shared needles. Inmates were aware of the risk of contaminated needles. Detergent was available but not bleach." (Extract from report of an unannounced short inspection of Styal.)

Styal prison had 207 female prisoners at the time of the inspection, 52 of whom had been convicted of, or were charged with drug-related offences. That works out at around 25 per cent, yet health care staff at the prison estimated that up to 90 per cent of inmates were using drugs during their stay at Styal. Yet there was no detoxification process, and little rehabilitation.

What conclusions can we draw from this? The overriding concern Release has, is that women are actually being put at risk by the state. This is not simply conjecture. On 4 February 1995, the British Medical Journal published an abstract of the first report of an outbreak of HIV infection occurring within a prison.

At Glenochil prison in Scotland, of a total of 378 male inmates, 227 (60 per cent) were counselled and 162 (43 per cent) tested for H IV. Twelve (seven per cent) of those tested were HIV positive. One third (76) of those counselled had injected drugs at some time, of whom 33 (43 per cent) had injected in Glenochil; all 12 seropositive men belonged to this group, and 32 of the 33 had shared needles and syringes in the prison. Evidence based on sequential results and time of entry into prison indicated that eight transmissions definitely occurred within the prison in the first half of 1993.

Release, along with many other organisations has plenty of anecdotal evidence that there is a high likelyhood of HIV infection occurring within a prison. For many years we have actively supported the view that at very least clean needles should be supplied in prisons. The findings at Styal were extremely alarming. But it is even more alarming that a significant piece of research should follow so quickly to confirm that in a similar environment "restricted access to injecting equipment resulted in random sharing and resulted in an outbreak of HIV infection".

In conclusion, since most women are not seen to posethreat to the community, and drug using women would be generally included in this, there is a strong argument for abolishing prison as a punishment for such offenders altogether. Added to this, there is now no question that the lives of many women in custody are at risk, and we wholeheartedly support the view of the academics academedics involved in the Glenochil prison research, that in the short term at very least, measures to prevent further spread of infection among prison injectors are urgently required.

But to give the final word to a woman prisoner:

"I don't think anything can be done that's going to be constructive until they get rid of the way they treat women and see women. If you're not like their women - Ah then we've got you like our women".

Alasdair Cant is training manager at Release.

Last Updated on Monday, 20 December 2010 23:05

Our valuable member Alasdair Cant has been with us since Sunday, 19 December 2010.