A reflection on women’s prisons in Ireland

By Yishi Chakrabarty

Alternatives to the imprisonment of female offenders are being considered by prison officials and researchers alike, yet Government bodies and members of the public appear to be biding their time in assigning this increasingly-complex problem with its deserved attention.

As sagas involving female struggles often develop, the ones directly witnessing the abuses to unrestricted female expression are by far the most aware of the impact and consequences upon the larger society, while others remain generally uninterested.

It is a statistical fact that prison populations are dominated by males and the majority of women in custody are there for trivial non-violent transgressions. Most of the women under the clutches of the criminal justice system have originated from poor backgrounds, neglecting households, dire circumstances and are often victims of atrociously violent crimes themselves.

It is an undisputed observation that female experiences of the prison service contrast starkly with its male counterpart. The structure of the prison is decidedly male-centric, “built by men, for men”, in the words of Dr Richard Roche, assistant governor of Limerick prison.

There are only two female prisons in Ireland. One is Limerick and the other is the Dóchas Centre in the Mountjoy campus on Dublin’s North Circular Road. Hence women from scattered parts of the country would be separated from their parents, partners and most importantly, children over great distances.

Mountjoy Prison (Courtesy: geograph.ie)

According to Dr Roche, this impacts the visits that female prisoners get. Men do not have too many troubles in having people visit them.

“Women are almost an after-thought. And you can see that quite clearly when you go to Limerick prison. It used to be a high-security division within the men’s prison for very dangerous people. And because they have no space in the Dóchas Centre, it became a kind of an annexe for the Dóchas. Consequently, it is overcrowded,” Dr Roche explained.

He has observed during the course of his career that men tended to get far better treatment from people visiting, compared to women. According to him, if a man wanted new trainers there would usually be a woman who would come to deliver them to him in the next visit. On the other hand, it was a big deal for women to even get a visit.

As a result of their minority status, women’s facilities have a limited capacity, which leads to overcrowding. A majority of the resources are reserved for men. Diverse workshops promoting carpentry and other skills are usually devoted to men, while the women are only allowed to knit and access basic education.

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The particulars of distinction in needs between female and male prisoners are acknowledged by the national prison services of Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England in their policy provisions for female prisoners. In Ireland, the details of the provision specifically designed for women are laid out in detail in the Joint Probation Service document. 

The publication sheds light on the sensitive requirements of women, especially the ones with young children. It is argued that their inability to cope with parenting responsibilities comes from their own situation of unmet needs and chronic societal neglect. The consequences for the children of imprisoned women are particularly far-reaching, causing a huge impact on their development and wellbeing.

The risk of losing contact with their families is high for imprisoned women, something which does not seem to be too relevant to situations involving males. Women are fundamental to the functioning of a family.

However, under the current social dynamic, there is usually a woman in the house who continue to carry out her duties and responsibilities even when the man is serving a prison sentence. Questions about his replacement, generally do not arise.

The absence of a woman in a household can imply an absence of basic care and attention being meted out to the children concerned, though ultimately, it depends on the understanding between the parents involved.  

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In 2010, the United Nations General Assembly voted unanimously for the Bangkok rules, a set of measures focussing on the treatment of female prisoners and non-custodial alternatives. All of the 193 member-countries of the United Nations acknowledged that criminal justice systems entail different kinds of needs and characteristics for women and decided to strive to meet them.

The Bangkok Rules document the dismissal of feminine requirements in prison systems arising out of the structure of a male-dominated worldview. While not belittling the life-altering gift of freedom law-abiding citizens enjoy, it does not overstep boundaries to infer that treatment of women by society is to a great extent homogenous, both in and out of prisons.

But it is only natural to have a general disregard for women in structures “built by men, for men”. Although it makes much more statistical sense in a prison setting rather than in mainstream society. 

The document goes on to explain the reason behind women’s arrival in prisons “as a direct or indirect result of multiple layers of discrimination and deprivation”. It is stated that women involuntarily become trapped in criminal justice system because of vulnerabilities and the direct experience of abusive situations.

The document then goes on to propose ways of dealing with female offences, alternative to custodial sentencing.

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According to the Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT), almost nine out of ten women are imprisoned for neglecting to pay court-ordered fines. Prison officials admit that the vast majority of women coming in to prisons pose “no real security risk”. Dr Roche believes that female inmates are more of a threat to themselves than other members of society.

Myriad alternatives to custodial imprisonment are being suggested by professionals at various echelons of the system. Some regard the prison system as a punishment for women as “archaic”.

No matter the shape of the facility, a consensus seems to lie on dealing with female crimes within the community itself and creating thresholds to imprisonment. Supported community service schemes, local community care centres, counselling services, community service sentences are just some of the suggestions out there.

Although open prisons exist for men in Ireland, there are currently none for women. There are only high-security, secluded prison facilities on offer for women. This leads to difficulties in post-release rehabilitation.

Women are 4.6 times more likely to face problems with accommodation and poor post-release supports when they are trying to reintegrate into their community after a prison sentence. Landlords and average members of the public tend to be far more critical of women in such situations.

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A sentence of imprisonment characterises one of the harshest punishments a State can inflict.

If precedence from the sexual assault case against Anthony Lyons in 2010 can be taken, Lyons was served a mere six-month sentence by the Circuit Court after digitally penetrating the complainant while pinning her to the ground. Under the backdrop of such judicial practice, it makes one wonder the reason behind women being continually subjected to short-term prison sentences over petty, non-violent offences, such as failure of paying court fines.

Common sense would encourage one to construe it as yet another instance of misogyny, but inefficacies of policy should suffice as a semblance of a possible cause for ‘polite’ discussion.    

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