Female imprisonment worldwide

Catherine Heard reflects on Female Imprisonment Worldwide, a recent event organised by the Institute for Criminal Policy Research. Listen to highlights from the speakers’ presentations on Birkbeck’s podcast.

Why this event? A rapidly increasing global female prison population

At ICPR we compile and host the World Prison Brief, a unique online resource that provides free access to the best available data on prisoner numbers in almost every country on the globe. This gives us a bird’s eye view of important trends in world prisoner numbers, which have been rising steadily in recent decades – particularly the numbers of women prisoners, as our World Female Imprisonment List (4th Edition) shows.

Numbers of women prisoners are rising in every continent, with significant increases reported in developed as well as less developed countries. This matters, not least because of the very high levels of vulnerability we know exist among women who get caught up in criminal justice processes. Women and girls in prison usually come from backgrounds of disadvantage and are likely to have experienced trauma, abuse, neglect or mental ill health before their imprisonment.

This event brought together experts in female imprisonment from around the world to discuss some of the causes and consequences of rising female prisoner numbers.

The scale and profile of female prison populations

Our keynote speaker was prison philanthropist Lady Edwina Grosvenor. Edwina has worked in criminal justice reform for more than 20 years. Perhaps her most ground-breaking contribution has been to advance the field of trauma-informed practice in the women’s custodial system in the UK.

Next, we heard from Roy Walmsley, who founded the World Prison Brief in 2000 and who compiles the population lists. Roy presented key data from the fourth edition of ICPR’s World Female Imprisonment List. There followed a presentation from Olivia Rope of Penal Reform International, an organisation that has contributed much to creating and promoting basic standards of decent, humane treatment for women and girls in custody. Olivia talked about some of the most common characteristics of women prisoners and explained why gender-informed approaches to women in criminal justice systems are so important.

Over-incarceration of women: drivers, harms and solutions
Marie Nougier from the International Drugs Policy Consortium then presented on the work they and members of their network have been doing to change the conversation around female drug offending, a major driver of the rapid rise in women prisoner numbers. View slide presentation here. 

Our next speaker, Teresa Njoroge had just given a TED talk in the United States, so we were all the more honoured to welcome her. Teresa heads up the NGO, Clean Start Kenya, which works with women and girls in Kenyan prisons. Teresa shared with us her own experience as an inmate in a Kenyan prison, spending a year in horrendous and needlessly humiliating conditions. She said many women never fully recover from the experience of prison in Kenya and in that sense their punishment lasts much longer than the term of custody they are sentenced to serve. View slide presentation here.

We then welcomed Madhurima Dhanuka from the Commonwealth Human Rights Institute in India. Madhurima’s presentation brought into sharp focus one hugely avoidable cause of high prisoner numbers – that is, the overuse of pre-trial imprisonment, a major problem in India. Madhurima also described the psychological damage prison causes many women, with awful conditions of custody followed too often by social isolation on release when their families abandon women due to the shame they are seen to have brought. View slide presentation here. 

Our last speaker was Jo Peden from the health and justice team at Public Health England. Jo has been working on a project to develop woman centred standards of health-care for female prisoners, something that is sadly lacking in too many prisons today. Jo’s presentation shed light on the alarmingly high rates of suicide and self-harm seen among women prisoners and the underlying vulnerabilities that they bring with them into custody. View slide presentation here. 

After the presentations, we had an open discussion with our audience. We were lucky enough to have Juliet Lyon CBE with us to chair this session. Juliet is now a visiting professor at Birkbeck. Prior to this, she was for many years the director of the Prison Reform Trust, which has long promoted better understanding of the needs of women prisoners and advocated to downsize the female prison population. Juliet reflected with honesty and a sense of sadness about the distance there remains to travel in achieving justice for women affected by the criminal justice system. If you listen to my podcast on the event, you can hear Juliet’s concluding thoughts on the presentations.

Where does female imprisonment fit within our world prison research programme?

Women prisoners are predominantly incarcerated for minor, non-violent, property or drug-related crimes, and are often primary carers for one or more children or older family members. This surely suggests that the economic and social costs of imprisoning women will, in most cases, outweigh the supposed benefits. That should prompt us to look more carefully at whom we imprison and ask, in every case, why we imprison and what we expect prison to achieve.

Our prisons research at ICPR aims to do just this. It seeks to bring about a deeper understanding of the many interwoven factors that combine to drive up prisoner numbers. We are doing this so that we can come up with some concrete, practical solutions to these harmful and unsustainable increases in the imprisonment levels of recent decades. We know that in order to do this, we must provide a better account of who it is that our states choose to imprison, and why.

This is a key goal of our current project, Understanding and reducing the use of imprisonment worldwide. The project entails an in-depth exploration of imprisonment in ten jurisdictions across all five continents. Those countries are: Kenya, South Africa, Brazil, the United States, India, Thailand, England & Wales, Hungary, the Netherlands and Australia. Among these are countries with some of the largest prison populations in the world: the USA, Brazil, India and Thailand are all in the top six globally. Most of these countries have seen very significant increases in their female prison populations since 2000. You can learn more about the project here.

  • Catherine Heard is director of ICPR’s World Prison Research Programme. Catherine has also recorded a podcast on the event, with audio content from each of the speakers’ presentations.
  • Speakers’ short biographical details can be found here. 
  • ICPR would like to thank all our speakers for their contributions to this event.
  • We are grateful to Clifford Chance for their generosity in hosting the event.
  • ICPR’s World Prison Research Programme is funded by Open Society Foundations.
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The Utopian Law School and the Fate of the University

This post was contributed by Joanna Hartl, a first-year student on Birkbeck’s three-year LLB.

The first day of  Law on Trial was well attended, with an impressive line up of academics on the panel. With Dr Adam Gearey in the chair, we were led into the first presentation by Jane Holder from UCL, which was about opening us up to Environmental Law and Ecology. We were told that it would be good if students and academics alike could walk the talk by becoming self-sustaining economic units, similar to monastic units, by fundamentally getting back to nature and living in a utopian ecological paradise experiencing a series of diverse ecosystems first-hand and learning how to manage them, while studying at the same time. It called to my mind an image of people becoming a modern day Diggers Group, led by Adam, spade in one hand, and photocopied earth stained seminar texts in the other, growing carrots and lettuces in Torrington Square, with Patricia Tuitt complete with trowel and compost planting tomato seedlings in pots on the roof garden of the 5th floor eatery! I was left waiting for the announcement as to when the work was to commence……..!?! Certainly food for thought, and with the rapid increase of community gardens, who knows what the result may be….it is up to us as students to be the movers, if anything is to be done!

The idea of running a self-sustaining academic unit, where all became involved was further developed through the second presentation from Maia Pal of Sussex University. Maia recounted the occupation of Sussex University in 2012 which lasted for approximately two months. A cross section of about 300 people from the university got together from diverse areas, taking over the conference centre – not only students but also security guards, administration staff and academics, together with cleaners and catering staff who joined forces to support a joint effort of protest against the management of the university, who had decided among other things to privatise, in order to try and save money, and outsource approximately 250 jobs. They managed to successfully occupy the university until a 2000-strong group of supporters somehow smashed the door of the main entrance, and then legal proceedings were taken to evict them, with five students being arrested. It is now illegal to stage a protest if the management haven’t given their consent! The slogan painted on the wall that summed it up was “A University Is Nothing Without Dialogue”. Maia energetically encouraged us all to think about who owns the University, is it the management? Is it the students? Is it the people who work there? The academics, and/or the non- faculty staff? Maia told us that she had learnt from her experiences in Quebec where both faculty and non-faculty could bind together successfully. She challenged us to think about the use of space and ownership, and that thinking about law should be a part of our education, especially where we are exposed to “Jurisdictional Struggles” which in themselves question the existence of the law, and the use of space.

From this pragmatic stance we were guided back into the realms of literature by the next speaker, Thomas Docherty of Warwick University, who told us that the poet Shelley stated “….Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world…..” But he then went on to give a very cogent account of the political history behind the introduction of tuition fees for higher education, and critiqued Cameron ‘s ” something for nothing ” gripe about people who don’t have any resources wanting a share of the cake, making a comparison with those business-minded types who seek to enforce this culture into academic fields, and business, whereby someone will be expected to bring more results for less funding year after year until finally there is nothing left! Ultimately leading to THEFT! He covered also how the teaching accreditation techniques were becoming increasingly meaningless, causing an administrative overload, and not much else. He threw out pertinent questions to the audience about student debt, and taxation, and the possible privatisation of the student loan book, which the government would like to sell off. He told us that this increase in debt (poetic reference here to debt being like a “….shadow that is cast…”) is adding to social injustice, and ultimately would create yet more inequality. What we need to aspire to is a just university where …”crisis decision making “… at the heart of the university can be seen to be effective in extending justice out into the community, rather than allowing injustices (of all sorts) to continue.Thomas then summed up, saying that what we often get is quantity not quality, proving that he is obviously a poet and a literary man at heart!

Plenty of ideas and information came from this meeting, we just need to decide what course of action to pursue now, as the ball is in our court.

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JENGbA – Joint Enterprise Not Guilty By Association

Presentation at Birkbeck on Wednesday 9 May 2012; 7 – 9pm.

Debbie Johnson, a student on Birkbeck’s MA Gender, Sexuality and Culture:

The Joint Enterprise Law is hailed as the answer to ‘gang crime’ in Britain.  However, an alarming number of teenagers are currently serving life sentences for being ‘guilty by association,’ or simply being ‘in the wrong place at the wrong time.’  This includes being imprisoned for crimes they did not commit, could not have foreseen, had no intention of committing or even in numerous cases – tried to prevent happening.

JENGbA campaigners Gloria Morrison, Patricia Brown and Karen Horlock spoke at Birkbeck last Wednesday evening about the implications of the Joint Enterprise Law (JE) and why we should be concerned about its current application.

The evening began with a short film detailing the history of JE.  It is a law over 300 years old for the prevention of illegal duels holding equally culpable all in attendance, not only the combatants but also the medics or any witnesses – they would all be ‘guilty by association.’  It is this law which has re-emerged as Britain’s answer to ‘gang crime.’  However, its current application is targeting large numbers of working class families in Britain particularly those from Black, Asian and Ethnic minority groups.  JENGbA are campaigning for the reform of the Joint Enterprise Law.

Karen Horlock spoke first relating how the JE law had devastated her family.  Her son is serving a life sentence for a crime he did not commit and despite having witnesses to testify that he was not present at the crime, he was imprisoned because he knew some of the people involved and by JE law is ‘guilty by association.’  Karen questioned why her son – a 30 year old married man – has been imprisoned under an archaic law supposedly used to prevent teenaged gang crime.  Karen further explained the impossibility of the appeal process; it is inadmissible to use evidence used during the trial, you are required to find fresh evidence ‘how do you find DNA evidence to prove you weren’t there?’ said Karen to the stunned audience.

‘It encourages lazy policing,’ said JENGbA campaigner Sharon Spencer sat in the audience, the police no longer need to find evidence, you are guilty simply by knowing the person who is involved, ‘people have been imprisoned for a phone call.’

Patricia Brown then spoke about her son.  While walking home from school with a friend, they were attacked by a much older boy, Patricia’s son managed to break free, he was 15 years old at the time and ran home scared.  Later it was discovered that his friend had stabbed the older boy.  Patricia’s son was sentenced to 15 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, was not present at and – as also required by JE law – had no forethought or knowledge of.  Patricia was visibly distressed, speaking just above a whisper, she like Karen is still grappling with the enormity, and pain of what has happened to her son.

Campaign Coordinator Gloria Morrison then gave what proved to be a rousing finale to the evening.  Gloria outlined JENGbA’s aim to not only campaign for the reform of The Joint Enterprise Law but for solidarity with all miscarriages of justice.  Gloria cited many examples of social injustice against working class people including the deaths in police custody of Christopher Alder and Anthony Grainger.  She invited everyone present to JENGbA’s fundraiser on Tuesday 26 June 2012 and also an upcoming presentation on Monday 21 May 2012 to include John Carlos who performed the iconic black power salute at the 1968 Olympic Games, Doreen Lawrence the mother of murdered Stephen Lawrence and Janet Alder the sister of murdered Christopher Alder.

Liz Feteke – Director of Institute of Race Relations:

Room incredibly packed – must be seventy people.
Very diverse audience, age-wise, gender-wise, race-wise a real representative cross section of the population.  People in the audience shaking their heads when they hear the sentences of the people convicted under JE.
 
Karen Horlock explains how JE works and what happened to her son, also the lack of evidence in JE cases, and the long term impact on the health and well being of her family.
 
Patricia then spoke of her son’s case and the media handling of a high profile case.
 
More people coming in as Gloria does her ‘state of the nation’ address on JE.
 
Questions are very challenging. One lady in the audience reveals that her godson has been sentenced for 18 months for a crime he did not commit, and he has gone off the rails now. A lot of focus on the media

Anna Foldvari, Birkbeck MA student:

We heard the voice of the voiceless. Thanks to JENGbA we heard how frequently in the name of justice and order, injustice occurs in the UK. The fact about the destruction of the lives of hundreds and thousands of ordinary and innocent people and their families cannot be hidden anymore. The horrid experiences of families and innocently imprisoned people cannot be denied anymore because JENGbA and the amazing people behind it raise their voice. They are here and they are campaigning against an outdated, politically charged law which application is so very often motivated by racism and middle-class anxieties. And because change is desperately needed, responsible citizens cannot turn their head away and cannot sit with their hands folded.”

You can follow JENGbA on Twitter @JENGbA
Find JENGba on Facebook
Follow their blog.

 

 

 

 

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