Female Incarceration in the Western World: From the US to the UK

At a first glance, it would be quite strange to think about crowds of women squeezed behind bars- maybe because prison is in the popular conscience somehow associated with violence- and violence is mostly associated with men. Women don’t easily fit in the brutality and the majority of prison connotations. Women don’t play around with guns, women don’t do so many drugs, women cannot easily become criminals, women are not physically brutal and violent and so on. What if the perceptions we have as a society sometimes go against reality, evidence and numbers? We tend to create stories in our head, classify people in different categories, have an opinion on everything. But it seems that reality can easily escape from our perception , often in painful ways- and when we realise that reality is often much harder than we can bear we get frustrated and angry and desperate.

In the case of women behind bars, the crude reality is that the rate of women incarcerated around the globe is certainly much bigger than most of us have ever imagined. It would make much more sense if the majority of those women had committed serious crimes- but no. The majority of the female population in prisons are convicted for non-violent offences. Some of them are pregnant, some are drug addicts, some are mothers and some are extremely poor. In other words, for many  cases of imprisoned women, the word ‘criminal’ has substituted the word ‘victim’.  I will start with the US that is the champion in female incarceration, continue with Europe and finally with the UK. The numbers and the offences for which women are convicted are shocking.

Female Imprisonment in the US

The United States of America is the country with the highest rates of incarceration in the world.  Despite the fact that it comprises only 5 per cent of the world’s population, it accounts for nearly 25 per cent of the world’s prisoners. Along with the overall highest incarceration rates in the world, the US has the highest rates of female incarceration. Women in prison constitute more than one tenth of the whole prison population.  In the last two decades in particular there has been a significant increase in the number of women in prison. According to the the American Civil Liberties Union and the Bureau of Justice Statistics reports more than one million women are under the supervision of the criminal justice system in the US, with all forms of correctional supervision considered. From 1986 onwards, there has been a 400 per cent increase overall in the number of women behind bars both in state and federal prisons.

What is more striking is that the vast majority of women are behind bars for non-violent offences. It seems that drug offences are the most usual causes of criminal convictions and incarceration among women, far exceeding the convictions for violent crimes and public order offences. One of the biggest contributors to the increase of incarceration rates in the US is the war on drugs. After the passage of Reagan’s Anti-Drug Abuse Act in 1986, the incarceration of non-violent offences significantly increased. Part of the policy included the introduction of obligatory minimum sentences for minor drug offences. The war on drugs and the unjustifiably harsh sentences apparently affected women more than men, making the rate of increase for the last decade to reach the figure of 4,8 per cent for women compared to 3,1 per cent for men, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.  From 1999 onwards, 72 per cent of the women in prison were incarcerated for drug offences. A big number of incarcerated women are mothers and lack the necessary and specific treatment. Nearly two‐thirds of incarcerated women have at least one child, and 77% of these mothers were the primary – if not the exclusive – caregiver for their children before their imprisonment. 

It is unbelievable that in some states in the US, women are shackled during pregnancy. Women are shackled during medical appointments, screenings and court appearances as well as during labour, under the justification that shackling is necessary to prevent them from escaping. Who can easily believe that a so called civilized world, the leader in science and technology, and the want-to-be pioneer in ensuring democracy and human rights can still allow for inhumane practices such as shackling to exist? We would easily assume that these practices can exist in the developing world, where human rights are not respected in some instances, but who would think that the US still employs those? Another example of how reality goes beyond imagination.

Female incarceration in Europe and Central Asia

The number of women in prisons across Europe and Central Asia doesn’t seem to be much better than the US. You could say that the two continents compete against each other over the ‘award of the biggest number of women imprisoned without reason’!

According to a recent report released by Harm Reduction International, over 112,000 women are incarcerated across Europe and Central Asia,  and 31,400 women of a total of 112,525 – one in four- are imprisoned across Europe and Central Asia  for drug offences. According to the report’s findings, the offences for which women enter prison are in almost all cases non-violent and in many instances the only reason for incarceration is the possession of small quantities of drugs.

 The highest number of imprisoned women is found in Germany and France. The countries with the highest imprisonment rates of women for drug offences are Tajikistan (70%), Latvia (68%), Portugal (47.6%), Estonia (46), Spain (45.5%), Greece (43.7%), Italy (42.9%), Sweden (41%) and Georgia (34%). The lowest percentage of women in prison for drug offences was found in Poland.  In Western Europe, there are more than 7,100 women in prison, with just under 17% (1,219) for drug offences.

The report revealed that current drug laws in Europe and Central Asia affect women disproportionately, since drug offences are the first cause for which women are imprisoned. Many states across Europe and Central Asia implement rigid and punitive drug policies which overlook the real, existing challenges that women face, such as poverty, illiteracy, problematic family history including physical and sexual abuse, HIV problems, psychiatric disorders and many more.  As stated in the conclusion, women living in poverty are very often unable to pay fines for petty offences, which increases their vulnerability for being detained. It is really alarming that drug dependence does not reduce or change in prison surroundings, but usually increases and deteriorates women’s addiction to substances. In many European countries harm reduction programmes and treatment services are not even available in prisons.

The report highlighted the need of an immediate sentencing reform that takes into consideration women’s rights and does not punish innocent victims but seeks to improve their health and life.  The UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women has expressed strong concerns about the issue and the number of women 'imprisoned for drug offences or because of the criminalization of minor infringements, which in some instances seem indicative of women’s poverty’.  The Committee went on to state that the Government should ‘ intensify its efforts to understand the causes for the apparent increase in women’s criminality and to seek alternative sentencing and custodial strategies for minor infringements’.

Practices such as shackling pregnant women have not been reported in Europe but the criminal justice system should undergo significant changes that include the provision of gender specific services in policy design, placing importance to pregnant women’s needs and enhancing harm reduction strategies and health services. One good way to start would be to couple criminal justice with health policy so that women –and men- who are patients –mostly drug offenders- and not criminals have the adequate health treatment and full access to fair harm reduction programs.

Female Incarceration in the UK

Unfortunately the UK has not been an exception to the rule of incarcerating countless women. A study published by Radcliffe- Oxford informs us that, as expected, men generally have been outnumbering women in prisons while women have been outweighing men in the psychiatric system. However, a big number of women is behind bars, despite the usual association of prison with men.

Prison statistics are compiled differently in many different regions across the UK, making it hard to have clear and aggregate data on the exact number of imprisoned women.  The available statistics from the Home Office state that the number of women in prison within England and Wales rose from 1560 in 1993 to 4672in 2004, only to start decreasing slightly to 4248 in 2006. Between 1991 and 2001 the number of women entering the british prisons increased by 223%, while the number of men increased by 74%. This dramatic increase in women’s incarceration rate can be attributed to a ‘more severe responses to less serious crimes’ according to the Home Office. 

’ Women in prison’, a charity that campaigns against the imprisonment of women, reports alarming statistical data about the bad conditions, deprivation and poor mental health of women in British prisons: 70%  of them report having serious mental problems, 50% of the incarcerated women report being victims of domestic violence and childhood abuse, 37% have attempted and 27% have committed suicide in 2003/4 and 20% have been brought up from the state away from their family.

There are many testimonies showing that women have in many different instances been humiliated, tortured and degraded by the UK prison system and it is interesting to point at them and denounce this horrible racism and exploitation of women.

According to a research conducted by the Guardian three years ago, sexual assault is the main form of female humiliation in UK prisons.  The prison staff abuses sexually female prisoners in exchange for benefits, such as drugs, cigarettes, soap, and even release from prison. It is difficult to conceive that prison stuff abuse of their ‘power’ in order to annihilate the dignity of women in weaker positions in the most horrendous ways. It is also hard to imagine that women who are incarcerated for minor offences such as drug use or petty crimes, women who have been felting misery, poverty and unhappiness constantly  in the course of their lives and who are completely unfairly sentenced, are punished for a second time, this time in a legal settlement, such as prisons, and in an even crueller way.

The research presents individual testimonies from women in british prisons who have been sexually harassed. All of the women report sexual advances from male and female prison stuff. Some of them explain that in most cases it is very hard to reject or get away with sexual relations, as sexual favours help women reduce their sentences, get promoted to better prison surroundings or even find jobs. One woman interviewed said: ‘It was part and parcel of prison life, and very intimidating. If you are not going to buy into the approaches made by staff, you will not progress, you will not get the good jobs, or get on the courses that will help you get early release’.  Sexual favours included strip searching, lap dances, sex with both female and male officers and many others.  Sara Taylor, 34, reported: ‘The whole situation is horrific. I have suffered sexual abuse in my life and do not expect to see it in prison, where they are supposed to provide care. It's pretty shit really.’

To return back to what I described in the beginning as being beyond imagination, it should now be clear how those human rights breaches and the violation of personal integrity of women in prisons exceed not only imagination, but logic as well. It is widely agreed that criminals in prisons very often suffer from madness and poor mental health, and for this exact reason they are sent to  prisons. But how correct would it be to dare to argue that institutions, governments, officials and all those agents that are supposed to have the role of the leader in human societies very often severely lack a sense of rationality, sensibility and humanity? Friedrich Nieszche made the following observation in his book ‘Beyond Good and Evil’: ‘Madness is rare in individuals – but in groups, political parties, nations, and ages it is the rule’. I think this phrase summarises the irrationality and injustice of the mass female incarceration around the world along with the cruel and inhumane treatment of women in prison environments.

Read more about women's incarceration in the US, in Europe and the Guardian survey on female inmates.