Symptoms of a Sick Society: The Growing Female Prison Population
So how can we think about crime differently?
Editor’s Note: The author of this essay has been anonymised to protect their identity.
Since 2002 the female prison population has increased by over 150%. It has now reached a point where the Department of Corrections has had to reopen a previously closed section of Rimutaka Prison, separate from the main jail, to house women. This is despite the fact that the crime rate in Aotearoa has been steadily declining since 2006. So who are these women who are filling our prisons to the point of overflowing? According to research conducted by the Department of Corrections, 75% of these women have had mental health problems diagnosed in the past year and 52% have experienced post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) across their lifetime. The research estimates that three quarters of women in Aotearoa New Zealand’s prisons have experienced family violence, rape and/or sexual assault as a child or adult. In addition, the majority of women in our prisons also have alcohol and drug issues.
Looking at the statistics described above, a picture of the average female prisoner in Aotearoa starts to form. She is someone who probably experienced violence in her home, and has had at least one violent partner. She was probably victimised sexually either as an adult or a child. She is someone whom people have worried enough about that she has a clinical diagnosis for a mental health disorder and/or PTSD; it is likely she has struggled to find appropriate support services for these issues. Over time alcohol, and sometimes other drugs such as methamphetamine, have become an escape from the stress and violence that seems intrinsic to everyday life. She has also committed a crime.
Our women’s prisons are clearly places that are packed full of the most hurt and abused people in our society
These are the types of women our jails are filled to bursting point with. Why is this? There are many factors, but a major one is the Bail Amendment Act of 2013. This act was intended to make it more difficult for a serious violent offender to get bail, placing the burden of proof that the community is safe on the offender rather than the Crown. Advocacy organisations such as Just Speak claim that this law has been overused by judges, and in conjunction with the housing crisis – an offender will be denied bail if they have insecure housing – is responsible for our spiralling prison population. It is unclear, however, why these changes have disproportionately affected women. The female prison population has risen nearly three times more quickly than the male prison population. Some claim that women are offending more violently now, and as a result serving more custodial sentences, and there is some truth to this, but the increase in violent offences committed by women only accounts for a small proportion of the increase.
Our women’s prisons are clearly places that are packed full of the most hurt and abused people in our society. The women who fill them have often experienced heart-breaking violence that is beyond the imagination of your average armchair policy analyst. Despite this, there is the constant call to participate in enacting more violence on them under the public-relations-speak catch-cry of ‘harsher punishments for criminals.’ Generally those who call for this don’t tend to specifically break down what that would mean, although it tends to include vague ideas about capital punishment, hard labour, uncomfortable conditions and the judicious use of physical force. For example, the founder of the Sensible Sentencing Trust, a registered charity, has recently made the news for congratulating the police for killing an offender. It sounds like a dystopian nightmare but these are sentiments that I have heard softer echoes of in the living rooms of those I know personally. While these people are not speaking about women offenders specifically, these types of attitudes tend not to discriminate by gender. Corrections does not share these views. The official position of the agency is that it is the deprivation of liberty and removal from friends and family that is the punishment in and of itself. The role of Corrections is not to punish but to care for people while they are being punished.
when violence is normal, how can it possibly act as a deterrent?
However, it seems that there is a widespread belief in our society that people cannot learn from their mistakes without deprivation and violence. People seem to genuinely believe that the best weapon we have against crime is deterrence, and that the only thing that deters people from committing crimes is ‘harsher punishments’ – or the threat of violence. However, when you look at the demographic of our women prisoners, what violence could society possibly inflict that is worse than the violence they have already experienced, and when violence is normal, how can it possibly act as a deterrent?
The belief in the need for ‘harsher punishment’ flies in the face of mountains of evidence. Despite the lack of emotional payoff for victims and the public, so-called ‘soft on crime’ solutions are the ones that seem to work. For example, home detention is Aotearoa’s best-performing sentence and results in half the recidivism of custodial sentences. The Netherlands has managed to close 19 prisons and is on the verge of closing five more. This is largely down to evidence-based policies. These include relaxed drug laws, a focus on rehabilitation over punishment, and an electronic monitoring system that allows people to re-enter the workforce. This makes sense when you think about it – statistically people who marginalised and isolated from society commit more crimes. The approach of the Netherlands is to reconnect people and give them more incentives to participate in society, rather than taking them out of it. What this tells us is not only are punitive attitudes to crime not working, but they are adding to the burden of crime in our society – something that they are meant to be addressing. That is some kind of irony. So how can we think about crime differently?
Our society seems to view crime as personal moral failing, and that makes it easy to despise and dehumanise those who commit it. However, when we look at the types of people who commonly fill our prisons, it seems clear that there are structural issues at play. It could certainly be argued that violence is endemic in Aotearoa society. This is evidenced by the fact that we have the highest rate of violence against women in the developed world, by our extremely high rates of child abuse and in smaller more subtle ways such as the high rates of bullying in our schools. This violence has also been perpetrated by the state. Over the past year and a half the abuses children experienced in state care in the 70s 80s and 90s have exploded into the spotlight, and the government has launched an inquiry into historical state-care abuse. There is some evidence that the oldest gangs in Aotearoa were started by young men who were horrifically abused in state care. In the USA they speak of the school-to-prison pipeline, and in Aotearoa it is not too far-fetched to think of us as having a state-care-to-prison pipeline. Of prison inmates under the age of 20, 83% have a care-and-protection record with Oranga Tamariki (formerly Child, Youth and Family), and this points to a deep fissure in our society that far too many people are falling through. However, this inquiry does not address the continued issues that exist in our state care system.
When we look at the fact that the vast majority of women in our prisons have been victims of violence themselves, it could be argued that crime committed by women is actually a symptom of the wider pattern of violence in our society
When we look at the fact that the vast majority of women in our prisons have been victims of violence themselves, it could be argued that crime committed by women is actually a symptom of the wider pattern of violence in our society. One of the things we know about the experience of violence is that it can traumatise people. Particularly if it is experienced over an extended period of time, such as in situations of family violence. While we are only just beginning to scratch the surface in terms of understanding how trauma affects human beings, there are things we do know. We do know that trauma affects the way people perceive and respond to threat, it affects people's ability to concentrate, it affects how people make decisions and take risks, it affects how people process information and we know that that people who have experienced trauma have much higher rates of substance abuse. Many people who have post-traumatic stress issues use behaviours such as shoplifting, gambling, self-harm, drugs and alcohol as a way to manage their distress, as these activities have specific effects on the brain that help to distract or minimise emotional pain.
With rates of violence as high as they are in Aotearoa, we could have an epidemic of traumatised people on our hands, and when you look at the way trauma affects people it is not surprising that the majority of women in our prisons have or have had a PTSD diagnosis – this does not even capture the women who have sub-clinical traumatic reactions or who have not accessed a professional to receive a diagnosis. While obviously not every woman who has committed a crime has experienced trauma, there is an undeniable link, particularly when we look at offences related to drugs. It could be argued, then, that a major factor in the burgeoning female prison population is our inability to address the violence endemic in our society, and our inability to provide services to people affected by this violence in order to heal from it. Instead, it seems that we are simply housing them in ever-increasing prisons.
Interestingly, many women who are in prison do not necessarily view it as a wholly negative experience. For some it is the first time in a long time that they are living without the constant fear of violence. It can also be, for many women, the only place where they are only responsible for themselves, which provides an opportunity for reflection and healing they do not have anywhere else in their lives. It is also a chance to dry out from drugs and alcohol for many who find the task too overwhelming on their own, and find accessing support to do so in the community impossible. Others also find the predictability of the structure and routine in prison comforting. The fact that prison can seem like a relief for some women is not a comment on how amazing and progressive our women’s prisons are, but instead should be taken as a deeply concerning comment on how incredibly difficult some women’s lives are in this country. No woman should ever have to turn down parole because she is not safe in her own home and she has nowhere else to go.
If we think about crime as a symptom of a problem rather than the problem itself, then perhaps we should look at it being a collective issue rather than an individual failing
If we think about crime as a symptom of a problem rather than the problem itself, then perhaps we should look at it being a collective issue rather than an individual failing. If we can ask ourselves why crime is happening, rather than persecuting criminals, perhaps we would be much more successful in eradicating it. Over the last decade extensive research done by the authors of The Spirit Level among others reveal how inequality affects society. Highly unequal societies fare poorly on all sorts of social indicators, including crime rates and high rates of violence. The impact that inequality has on society indicates that rather than simply being the result of individual a-morality, the factors that lead people into crime are myriad and multifaceted.
Perhaps the least acknowledged and least understood of these factors for women is trauma. This is not to say that trauma excuses bad behaviour, but it does explain it, and certainly we could help people address it, especially if we viewed crime as a public health issue in its broadest sense. If we reframe crime as an issue of public health it becomes something that society as a whole has some responsibility for, as when a crime is committed it means that something somewhere has gone wrong and steps must be taken to address it. This goes well beyond the idea of rehabilitation, and perhaps even beyond Indigenous models of justice such as restorative justice, because it operates on the assumption that a healthy society is one where a crime rate is minimal in the first place. However, what this means is we as a society have to put the work in, we cannot just continue putting people into prisons because ‘they deserve it,’ instead we have to take action to make our world more equal and less violent – something that is much more difficult than warehousing people.