The Case against Imprisoning Women

Rachel Lane 17 September 2021
Image credit: Creative Commons

Were she to remove her blindfold long enough to see the mishandling of female offenders in the criminal justice system, Lady Justice would be horrified. Equality does not always demand identical treatment. For proof of this, look no further than the incarceration – rarely as a last resort – of society’s most vulnerable females in prisons designed for men.

The case against female imprisonment is fourfold. First, most offences committed by women are petty crimes. For example, in 2019, 34% of all female convictions were for shoplifting, and 30% were for TV license evasion. Despite this, women have been swept up by a tide of penal populism, where public fears over leniency towards a perceived increase in dangerous criminal activity have resulted in harsher punishments for trivial offences. As a result, 82% of incarcerated women are serving prison sentences for non-violent crimes. In contrast, 48% of male prisoners have been convicted of a violent or sexual offence. Female offenders have been victimised by a punitive trend precipitated by serious male criminality.

Petty female crimes are punished with short custodial sanctions, which are disruptive enough to ensure the loss of one’s job, home and children, but too short for meaningful rehabilitation. It is therefore no wonder that 70.7% of women serving a short custodial sentence (less than 12 months) reoffend. Prison may be an appropriate response to violent and dangerous crimes, but the vast majority of those are perpetrated by men.

Second, females often possess a lower culpability due to the specific criminogenic influences that steer them towards crime. Gender shapes criminality differently for men and women. The David Farrington Study identified that although situational factors influence both genders, almost two thirds of male offenders cited behavioural traits such as aggression or impulsivity as the primary motivation for offending. In contrast, only 28% of female offenders cited these traits, with the rest offending mainly due to material deficits and vulnerability. In 2020, 48% of all women prisoners committed their crime to support someone else’s drug use, two thirds were survivors of domestic abuse and the majority of acquisitive crimes were committed to satisfy basic human needs. The typical female offender is the battered wife, the starving mother, the drug mule.

Instead of addressing these gender-specific vulnerabilities, female offenders are filtered into an institution created by men for men. Within these prisons, the Government has recently rolled out more cognitive behavioural treatment services as a means of rehabilitation. However, these treatments address the behaviours which are more commonly cited by men as the motivation behind offending. They don’t recognise that most women commit crimes out of necessity, rather than poor decision-making. Important as enhanced thinking skills are, they can hardly empower women to make better choices if these choices do not genuinely exist. Women are failed by a system that treats them as if they are men.

Third, although also harmful to many men, the prison estate is more acutely damaging for female offenders who exhibit higher levels of need and vulnerability. 53% of female inmates have experienced sexual or physical abuse (in contrast to 27% of men), 71% reported mental health problems (47% of men) and 50% required help with drug addiction (30% of men). Let’s also not forget the 66% of female offenders who are mothers to under 18-year-olds, or the average of 56 births per year by incarcerated women. Due to the limited number of female institutions, women are located further away from family, do not have adequate access to counselling and suffer from a shortage of female-specific hygiene products as a result of overcrowding. Such suffering is a disproportionate response to those convicted of petty offences and is often imposed by the state in circumstances where it failed to protect these women from abuse and poverty in the first place. The fact that women are 10 times more likely to self-harm whilst incarcerated than their male counterparts underscores the perversity of imprisonment for female offenders.

It is therefore worrying that the recruitment of 22,000 more police officers is expected to cause a rise in female custodial rates, with the Government pledging £150 million to create 500 new female prison spaces. Instead of preparing for the imposition of suffering upon petty female offenders, prisons should become a last resort option for the most serious offenders, with funding being invested in health and counselling services within these prisons to address female-specific needs.

Finally, female incarceration is detrimental to society at large. 17,000 children each year are harmed by the imprisonment of their mothers. The Government’s response in 2021? Allowing children to ‘sleepover’ with their mothers in prison. If you want to normalise prison and criminal activity to children, then sure, this is a great initiative! Most upsetting is that for the children of single mothers, they find themselves uprooted and placed with extended family or within care homes which can stunt childhood development and increase the risk of poor future outcomes. Moreover, the failure to address the female motivations of offending, such as addiction or poverty, leads to recidivism which in turns harms society through future criminal activity. Society is harmed by the incarceration of women, and all for what? To punish the theft of £30 worth of goods? That’s ‘justice’ right there.

There are many ways to avoid imposing inappropriate sanctions upon society’s most vulnerable women. An important step would certainly involve training police officers, especially the 22,000 new recruits, to understand the benefits of diverting the majority of female offenders into probationary support in the community. This requires two things. A culture of ‘last resort’, where officers see system contact as an option only for the more serious and prolific offenders. This in turn would require magistrates and judges to adopt a similar mentality, and to view prison as an institution ‘suitable’ only for dangerous female offenders for which there is no other option. These prisons should be redesigned to cater to the specific needs and vulnerabilities of female offenders.

Second, our system demands adequate community penalties to act as an alternative to imprisonment. These must contain punitive elements such as curfews and community work so as to avoid accusations that women are treated more leniently than men. Such community penalties should also be paired with programmes like the “Together Women” initiative which tackles the causes of female offending by providing housing, employment and health support which in turn reduces recidivism (only 34% reoffend) as it removes the criminogenic influences which lead to crime. Instead of spending £150 million to imprison more petty female offenders, this sum should be used to increase the reach of such programmes which have been specifically designed by women for women.

Lady Justice’s blindfold represents impartiality and equality within the criminal justice system. However, to achieve this, women must be treated as women, rather than a correctional afterthought to be filtered into a male-moulded prison estate. For petty female offenders with high needs and vulnerabilities, incarceration is not the answer.


–       The Prison Reform Trust 2019 Factsheet

–       MOJ 2019 Data:

–       David Farrington and the Cambridge Study in Delinquent Development

–       Crime in England and Wales 2020: