What happens when women go to prison? Guest post by Vicky Pryce

The importance of communication according to economist and former prisoner Vicky Pryce

Vicky Pryce

When economist Vicky Pryce admitted taking speeding points for her former husband, the ex-Cabinet minister Chris Huhne, she was sentenced to eight months in prison. After a very public trial in 2013, she was sent to East Sutton Park prison where she kept a diary of her experiences. Vicky Pryce is now a campaigner for women’s rights and prison reform. Here, she writes for Prison Watch UK about why communication, particularly for women, is fundamental to rehabilitation. 

From court room to prison sentence

Going to prison is not to be recommended but at least when it is expected there is a chance to prepare for it, put your affairs in order and also prepare yourself emotionally. Evidence nevertheless suggests that some 50 per cent of women who get sent to prison had been led to believe from discussions with their probation service that this is unlikely to happen or told by their own solicitors that a custodial sentence is unlikely. The result is that they turn up to be sentenced carrying just a handbag and no clothes for prison, not having read the mostly inadequate manuals on what to expect.

The effect is traumatic as often there have been no arrangements for the children

I met a number of women myself who were in that position. The effect is traumatic as often there have been no arrangements for the children – one woman I met had left them with her neighbour saying she would pick them up later that afternoon! When sentenced, one is taken out to the court cells and apart from a brief chat with one’s solicitors, external communication ceases until one is allowed a few free phone calls that evening. By then most women have seriously panicked.

The prison population is over-represented by women who are sole providers for their families

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Having a parent in prison: the impact on children

It is not easy anyway. But the prison population is over-represented by women who are sole providers for their families. A third of women prisoners who have children are single mothers, a percentage way above nine per cent for the population as a whole. The separation itself is bad enough but not knowing or being able to control what happens to your children particularly is unsettling.

An amazing statistic is that of when a man goes to prison, his children normally stay at their home, looked after, one presumes, by their partner or other relatives. If a woman goes to prison, only some nine per cent stay in their own homes.  The impact on the children can be devastating, many going into care, and then four times more likely to end up as NETS (not in education, employment or training) or in prison themselves.

17,000 children a year are left behind when their mothers go to prison

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The strain of separation for mothers in prison

Women in prison are already vulnerable, with 53 per cent of them having been physically, emotionally or sexually abused as children, just under half having been victims of domestic violence. Some 40 per cent have received treatment for mental health problems in the year before coming to prison.  It is not surprising therefore that the extra strain of separation results in women, even though they represent just under five per cent of the prison population at any time, account for one third of all attempts at self-harm, including suicide. For 85 per cent of them going to prison is the first prolonged period of separation from their children. It is estimated that some 17,000 children a year are left behind when their mothers going to prison.

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Problems of communication whilst in prison

In this context communication is key to allay some of the womens’  fears and concerns and to put their minds at ease. There are phones, but they cost  some are allowed to start with a credit if they had cash with them when entering that can go to pay for an initial chunk of calls. Otherwise they need to be paid in, at a very expensive rate. This is done either with  money being sent in, or else with money earned through work being done in prison.

But that doesn’t get you very far. In 2013 East Sutton Park open prison the rate paid was a total of £1.25 for a three hour morning or afternoon session. And from that women had to also keep enough to be able to buy envelopes, stamps and food from the canteen to supplement the appalling and unhealthy food in most prisons. The same issues of course apply to men.

Women desperate for news and communication with their families and the outside world

Letters are another important way to communicate.  I watched how the daily handing out of correspondence, already opened and usually read in advance by prison officers, was eagerly awaited by women desperate for news and communication with their families and the outside world. Only the letters from their solicitors were considered private. People could also send e-mails after registering to use the service and paying a block fee for a certain number of e-mails, using the prison number if it was known to them. Direct access of e-mails by the prisoners is denied and instead they get handed a printed copy, usually not on the same day, already read by the authorities, but at least they tended arrived early.

 (We tweeted about this a few months ago and it caused a bit of a stir!)

Replying was a problem of course. Each prisoner has the ability to send a letter on prison paper and with a stamp paid by the service – the number seems to vary by prison category but it is a very small number a week.  Stamps are expensive. And many prisoners have difficulty with reading and writing. Surveys of prisoners suggest that nearly half of people in prison have no educational qualifications and many have difficulty with numeracy and literacy. In fact I met a number of dyslexics and some women I got to know could not read or write at all.

Children may have to travel up to two hundred miles to visit their mother

So many had to depend just on visits. In closed prison they are particularly difficult to arrange and they are not very frequent. And because there are few, children may have to travel up to two hundred miles to visit their mother. The average distance of women’s prisons from their homes is estimated at 57 miles.

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Why is communication important in prison?

Some 45 per cent of offenders lose contact with their families while in prison. And attempts at self harm increase when visits are missed. Communications of all sorts while inside are critical – letters/books/ phones/ internet within limits / mobiles which people can access on days out, all help keep people better integrated with their community and eases the transition back to normality. People locked up for many hours a day with no external access become too institutionalised and unable to read just once out . If we must put people in prison in such large numbers we must ensure that re-offending, which costs the economy between £9.5bn and £13bn a year, is reduced. And the evidence suggests that when prisoners are visited regularly in prison re-offending is cut by 39 per cent.

Vicky Pryce is author of ‘Prisonomics’, how prison works, and should work, from an economist’s perspective.

For more information on women in prison, who they are and how they got there, click here.


One Comment on “What happens when women go to prison? Guest post by Vicky Pryce”

  1. […] average distance is 60 miles, for many it’s considerably more. Read our post by Vicky Pryce here on the importance of communication for women in […]

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