This essay is going to critically analyse and explore how female offenders are dealt with across the Criminal Justice System (CJS) focussing on different agencies including how they are dealt with in custody, in prison, and also the mental health of female offenders and how they’re needs are or aren’t met. I will also be looking into the history of the female offender and draw upon different theorists ideas as to why they offend and also if they are inherently different to their male counterparts.
The way in which female offenders are treated has evolved quite considerably over time. Many centuries ago the female criminal was seen as being ‘mad’ and ‘bad’ because they were subjected to double deviancy in that not only were they going against their perceived biological role, but also because they were committing an offence, therefore making them a criminal. When faced with this, women are not only punished by the CJS but also by friends, family and society in general.
‘Female criminals have been consistently portrayed down the ages as peculiarly evil and depraved, and as unstable and irrational. Often their irrationality is linked to their biological and their psychological nature. Paradoxically, they have been depicted as unfeminine and hence unnatural (Lombroso and Ferroro 1895) or all too feminine (Pollak 1950 in Carlen and Worrall :18).’
Women, like men, are dealt with by many different agencies in the Criminal Justice System, but is there any difference in treatment between the genders? This is an important aspect to consider when analysing the effectiveness of how female offenders are dealt with.
Much research has been done into the difference of treatment between genders when being dealt with by different agencies within the Criminal Justice System (CJS). It has been said that women are treated more leniently by the CJS compared to men. One of the reasons suggested for this is because women are said to ‘captivate’ men thus ensuring them more lenient treatment. Police also see women as less of a threat than men which is said to be another reason why they get treated more leniently and also are less likely to be sentenced for their crimes. Police have been accused of having a sexist attitude towards dealing with female offenders and are reluctant and unhelpful when it comes to cases of women in refuges.
One question that has always attracted a lot of interest is the reasons as to why women offend. There are numerous and complex reasons as to why women commit crime. Rumgay (1996) argues that ‘the backgrounds and circumstances of women’s lives are inseparable from their involvement in crime’ (Gelsthorpe 2002b:290). The factors included for female offending are, poverty, addiction, prostitution, abuse and unemployment to name a few. ‘(A) high proportion (of women in the CJS) are lone mothers. Many have lived on state benefits, few have been in paid employment, many have large debts, one in ten will have experienced homelessness and two in five will have experienced foster or other state care prior to imprisonment’ (Fawcett Society 2004: McIvor 2004; Carlen 2002 in Gelsthorpe et al 2007:13). More female offenders than male offenders have been a victim of sexual or emotional abuse prior to their imprisonment. This can have a profound effect on a woman’s time spent in prison as they will have to deal with authority from male prison officers which could have an impact on their mental health although not a lot has been written about male prison officers working in female prisons. Strip searching in female prisons is also something to consider when discussing the emotional impacts prison life has on female offenders as Corsten (2007:8) states the ‘regular, repetitive, unnecessary overuse of strip searching in women’s prisons (to be) humiliating, degrading and undignified and a dreadful invasion of privacy’. For women who have suffered a past of sexual abuse ‘it is an appalling introduction to prison life and an unwelcome reminder of previous victimisation’ (Corston 2007:8). It is important to note that ‘experience of abuse does not excuse women of their criminality but it does mean they have different needs from men in the CJS and a different approach to their criminality is required’, (Corston 2007:20). The prison system has come under a lot of criticism in recent years for apparently failing to effectively deal with the needs of these women.
Far more female offenders suffer from mental health problems than their male counterparts and this is something that is not being dealt with effectively enough in female prisons, ‘two thirds of women in prison are suffering from some sort of mental disorder’ (Wilson 2005:49). It has also been said that staff in female prisons are lacking essential skills and also that the prisons are under resourced. Research has suggested that mental health problems increase whilst a woman is imprisoned. Liebling (1994) states that women tend not to riot or exert violence in prison when distressed, but they are far more likely to self-harm or attempt suicide as an outlet. This is said to be the reason why rates of attempted suicide and self inflicted death are significantly high in female prisons. A study which was conducted by the Safer Custody Group (SCG) discovered that females in prison are forty times more likely to kill themselves and eighteen more times likely to self harm than women in the community (Rickford 2003). He also goes on to say ‘despite the best efforts of individual staff and despite the initiatives of the SCG, overcrowding undermines the ability of the Prison Service to provide a decent, safe environment in which women are less at risk of self harming’ (Rickford 2003:15).
In order to understand the extremity of mental health problems in female prisons the SCMH explains:
‘Prisons are overcrowded and lack staff skilled in dealing with mental health problems. There is also a high degree of co-morbidity among prisoners; some have a combination of mental health problems, substance misuse, personality disorder or learning difficulties’ (2006:1).
There is much speculation surrounding the legal framework surrounding mental health in prison and is slightly hazy. ‘Prisons, even their health care wings are not recognised as hospitals under the Mental Health Act 1983’ (SCMH 2006:7). This is another indication that the mental health needs of female prisoners are not being met. The Human Rights Act of 1998 came into force in October 2000 stating that the Prison Service has an obligation to protect people in its care. Article 2 states ‘Everyone’s right to life shall be protected’ (Rickford 2003:32).
Other factors affecting women in prison is the fact that they are far more less likely to have a partner on the outside looking after their children, elderly family members or children, and almost 40% lose their home whilst imprisoned (Women in Prison 2006 in Hayes 2007:188). This is very significant when discussing this because over half of women in prison are mothers with dependent children. Carlen & Worrall (2004:37) discuss that while ‘90% of fathers in prison expect their children to be cared for by the children’s mother, only about 25% of mothers in prison expect their children to be cared for by the children’s father’ (Home Office 2002a). As a result of this, over 18000 children a year are taken into care (Corston 2007).
Because there are far less female prisons compared to male prisons, women are more likely to be far away from home. This could mean that they don’t see their family as much as they would like or need to. Travelling to and from prison is costly especially to those who are from low income families. Not only are mothers not seeing their children regularly but it also could have a negative effect on the relationship between a mother and her children thus breaking down the bond they once shared. All these factors could only add to a woman already struggling with mental health problems. Research by HMP Holloway, London, showed that ‘only 35% of a sample of prisoners on reception were from London. The majority were from Sussex and Hampshire with some from Devon, Dorset and Cornwall; 5% were from the Midlands. A third of the Holloway population surveyed by the Chief Inspector had not received a visit from family or friends throughout their sentence’ (HMP Holloway 2000 in Rickford 2003). If the children of these female offenders re taken into local authority care, the local authority has to fund the children’s transport to prison thus resulting in a greater social cost.
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