IWD 2020 What about the women in prison?

In light of International Women’s Day (IWD), on 8 March, we are prompted to think about women everywhere, including in prison.

IWD started as a radical struggle by women to recognise their status as equal human beings, protected by and entitled to the same rights as men. Is this being achieved for women in prison? What other gender issues play out around activism and prison?

A few months ago, the Committee for the Prevention of Torture published its report (CPT, 2019), dominated by scathing commentary about the treatment of women in Scottish prisons. Horrific examples described women with severe mental health and physical health issues being held in isolation. In one case CPT investigators noted a woman who had gnawed her arm to the point that her bone was visible (see pages 7, 48). Additional observations of extreme suffering by women prisoners should shock and shame Scotland into action. One wonders whether this report, on the back of a similarly negative assessment by Audit Scotland in 2019 and other recent troubles, is behind the recently announced retirementof the Scottish Prison Service Chief Executive.

Exceptionally abhorrent examples should not, however, blind us to the routine ways that women in prison suffer and are let down by those in a position to help. Following the CPT’s visit to Scotland, women continue to die in prison, be locked in their own cells or segregation units for 22-23 hours a day as standard (see p. 28), and to be subject to infantilising, degrading treatment. Where are Scotland’s vaunted human rights mechanisms, its champions of women prisoners, and its politicians, and why has there been no outcry about the generally poor conditions of this group?

The Scottish Government accepted the findings of the nearly decade old Angiolini Commission on Women ‘Offenders’, including that most women should not be imprisoned, and to close HMP Cornton Vale. Neither of these has happened. While there are fewer younger women going to prison (though some still do including the fatal imprisonment of Katie Allan in 2018), the overall rate of women’s imprisonment in Scotland is stable, and still among the highest in Europe.

A neglected feature of the sympathetic, reforming tone in Scottish policy and academia towards women in conflict with law has been about the dangers of a victim discourse. This frames women passively as victims – more screwed up than men, having deeper or worse histories of trauma, denied existence as people themselves but identified and important mainly in relation to others (as unfit mothers or troubled daughters). As Una Barr points out, ‘when women are constructed solely as victims, they are pathologised, their agency disappears’ (page 151), incapable of organising their own lives, or finding their ways out of trouble. Women thus are positioned as in need of constant and coercive state rescue.

An irony of Scotland’s turn towards policies that support families and communities is that in prison, this has meant eroding the quality of the prison experience for women. How does this work? Co-locating groups – women, remand, men, protection (i.e. vulnerable) prisoners – in local prisons to bring them nearer to families has crowded these prisons and complicated their scheduling of activities (regimes). The easiest means of managing multiple groups is to keep them locked in their cells. Rationales are produced to explain this practice as reasonable. For women, this involves pathologizing them as both more bullying and bullied, more disruptive, deranged, disturbed.  Women also are subject to traumatising body searches (see p. 26) that have been challenged by the inspectorate of prisons.

Another irony of dispersing women around Scotland’s local prisons has been increasing the amount of time they spend in prisoner transport vans. This issue was of such concern to the Prison Inspectorate for Scotland they included an appendix charting a single day’s journey showing the amount of time women spent in vans (see pages 8 and 11; the issue remains a serious problem, see page 49); sometimes this was up to 12 hours – with no or few bathroom breaks, no menstrual products/accommodations, delayed or missed meals – all while handcuffed within these comfortless vehicles, isolated in claustrophobic cubicles on moulded plastic seats.

As one of the smallest groups, women have reduced access to the most worthwhile activities in prison including: education, jobs, family visits, exercise. All of these things are essential to surviving the prison experience. An additional effect is to reduce women’s visibility and ability to participate in activism around their confinement. Our existence as a collective was able to develop through the regular access our imprisoned men members had to contact with outsiders through education and other initiatives. Imprisoned women participated to some extent, but were much more constrained. In one case, our women colleagues were unable to attend education groups because of their having laundry jobs – not only typical women’s work, but also prioritised by the prison over their education.

We call for greater attention to be brought to this violence of women’s imprisonment and for it to be recognised as violence, and to resist ideology of prison as the care of victims. In the radical spirit of IWD’s origins, we urge well-intentioned reformers to abandon the paternalistic, infantilising language of victims, and to work towards ways of empowering the political awareness and participation of women everywhere.

And on a final note, we include unequivocally in the struggle for women’s rights in prison and in society, trans women, who face distinctive and profound forms of violence.

Screenshot 2020-03-11 at 12.59.52
Images are from the Barnard Center for Research on Women, as part of a collection and exhibition on Women’s Prison Activism. (url: http://bcrw.barnard.edu/archive/prison.htm)


Armstrong, S. and McGhee, J. (2019) Mental Health and Wellbeing of Young People in Custody: Evidence Review, Glasgow: Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research. Available at: https://www.sccjr.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/SCCJR-Mental-Health-and-Wellbeing-of-Young-People-in-Custody_Evidence-Review.pdf(accessed 10.03.20)

Audit Scotland (2019) The 2018/19 Audit of the Scottish Prison Service, Edinburgh: Audit Scotland. Available at: https://www.audit-scotland.gov.uk/report/the-201819-audit-of-the-scottish-prison-service (accessed 10.03.20)

Barr, U. (2019) Desisting Sisters: gender, power and desistance in the criminal (in)justice system. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan.

Barry, EM. (2000) Women Prisoners on the Cutting Edge: Development of the Activist Women’s Prisoners’ Rights Movement, Social Justice, Vol. 27, No. 3 (81), pp. 168-175.

Cee Whitehead, J. (2007). Feminist prison activism: An assessment of empowerment. Feminist Theory, 8(3), 299–314.

Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) (2019) Report to the Government of the United Kingdom on the visit to the United Kingdom carried out by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) from 17 to 25 October 2018, Council of Europe. Available at: https://rm.coe.int/1680982a3e (accessed 10.03.20)

HM Inspectorate for Prisons Scotland (HMIPS) (2017) 2016-17 Annual Report, HMIPS. https://www.prisonsinspectoratescotland.gov.uk/sites/default/files/publication_files/SCT06174847802.pdf (accessed 11.03.20)

HM Inspectorate for Prisons Scotland (HMIPS) (2019) 2018-19 Annual Report, HMIPS. https://www.prisonsinspectoratescotland.gov.uk/sites/default/files/publication_files/Annual%20report.pdf (accessed 11.03.20)

HM Inspectorate for Prisons Scotland (HMIPS) (2016) Follow-up inspection of HMP & YOI Cornton Vale. HMIPS. Available at: https://www.prisonsinspectoratescotland.gov.uk/sites/default/files/publication_files/HMP%20YOI%20Cornton%20Vale%20-%20Review%20Inspection-%2011-13%20October%202016.pdf (accessed 11.03.20)

Moore, L. and Scraton, P. (2013) The Incarceration of Women: Punishing Bodies, Breaking Spirits. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

Moore, L. &and Scraton, P. (2009) The Imprisonment of Women and Girls in the North of Ireland: A ‘Continuum of Violence’, in Scraton, P. and McCulloch, J. (eds.), The Violence of Incarceration. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 124 -144.

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