UK Feminists: Let's Keep Women out of Prison

Lady Justice wears a blindfold to indicate that she cares not about a person’s race, sex or social class. Shockingly, British feminists are arguing in favor of removing that blindfold when it comes to a criminal’s sex. They’re arguing for changes that would offer women a greater chance of community-based rehabilitation rather than prison. It’s an idea that has been floating around in the femisphere for a while, and the flagship British project, which is funded by the government, is called Inspire.
The project, which was started in Brighton on the south coast of Britain, runs a set of centers that organize community rehabilitation facilities for female offenders. The lobbying carried out by this group is in favor of this approach being employed on a wide scale, as they claim it has proven very effective.
“A significant proportion have also experienced serious and sustained violence or sexual violence either as adults or as children.” – Inspire Women’s Project, Executive Summary.
So, what could the argument for prison avoidance for women actually be? This article published in The Independent last year sums up the feminist argument very well. Even the title, “Mothers & Prison: The alternatives”, is wrong-footed from the start as it’s a bit unfair to claim that mothers deserve special status in a society in which men don’t have equal rights of custody.
And it’s all downhill from there. Like a lot of feminism, the arguments of Inspire use a trick of omission when attempting to justify unequal treatment for male and female criminals. The supporters of this policy say that female offenders are typically from disadvantaged and abusive backgrounds. They are probably right, but what they leave out is that this is that this sums up the background of practically every man in prison. A history of abuse and neglect is often characterizes the early life of a repeat criminal offender. In the same way, a huge proportion of men in prison have suffered from or currently suffer from mental illness, a point that Inspire makes about female offenders.
To mull these issues is to touch upon a question that has tasked philosophers and commentators throughout time. What is the purpose of punishment? Is it to reform the individual, or to mete out a punishment that evokes a sense of satisfaction within the wider society? Is its purpose to provide a deterrent to the criminal, and by example, other citizens?
It’s worth noting that most of the case histories that are presented in order to bolster the feminist argument are the product of self reporting on the part of the offender. It’s a well known cliché that every criminal is an expert at manufacturing a believable sob story. Practically every man in prison would, given a chance, argue that he is a victim and that his case deserves sympathy. Women making this argument have the advantage that it’s difficult to walk down a city street without seeing a poster of a woman suffering an unfair plight, the product of a society that is very quick to see women as victims.
“It costs £45,000 to keep a woman in prison for one year – while almost 45 per cent of all women released from custody in 2010 re-offended within 12 months.” – Ministry of Justice website.
It’s hard to see how any of the examples that Inspire and its like-minded supporters offer can, in any way, be used to justify unequal treatment for men and women. Whatever you say about female offenders and the treatment that they deserve is typically true of male offenders.
Were there a universal set of rules to exclude some offenders from normal treatment, what might they be? If the criminal has a hard luck story, should they be able to avoid prison? Or a history of mental illness? What if they had a really good excuse and won’t do it again? If so, prepare to release about 90% of the male prison population back onto the streets. It would certainly save some money, in the short term. That too, pointing out the high cost of keeping women in prison, is used as a justification for special treatment. It also fails the same basic test that all arguments for unequal treatment do because whatever you say about female prisoners is typically true of male prisoners.
Some may debate whether community sentencing as opposed to imprisonment is a “soft option” after all, and much of the rhetoric employs phraseology such as “tough community scheme”. A simple test would be to offer each sentenced criminal a choice between going to prison or doing a community sentence. Bear in mind that by the time a criminal is facing imprisonment, they are usually sufficiently familiar with the justice system to make an informed decision. According to the backers of female-specific schemes, criminals would show no preference for community sentencing over prison.
Even if there there are found to be differences in the effectiveness of community sentences for male and female offenders, it makes no real difference. If it were proved that recidivism amongst male offenders given community sentences was higher, feminists would claim that it was evidence that community sentences were not the correct approach for male offenders. However, if it were found that recidivism amongst female offenders on community sentences was higher, feminists would claim that this proved that female offenders needed greater support. You can’t win on that one.
A basic thought experiment can be used to clarify the matter further. Let us say that it was discovered that in 1970s South Africa, the Government had declared that white people would receive different treatment to black people when they committed a criminal offense. It might have argued that white people were less likely to be involved in crime and that the minority that did commit crimes were typically victims of hardship and deprivation. Further more, measures such as education and community service seemed to be more effective than prison with white criminals. Could you live with that?

Resources

A UK Government webpage that details the aims of the scheme
A UK newspaper article that endorses the scheme

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