It is often stated by females in the Criminal Justice System that women are a minority in a system that is designed with men in mind; women currently make up 4.5% of the prison population in the UK. But 80% of these women have been convicted on non-violent offences. 53% have reported experiencing physical, emotional and sexual abuse. 38% of women in prison do not have accommodation arrange on their release. The low proportion of women in prison means that the specific needs of women in the CJS are often neglected and their voices are not heard.
International Women’s Day celebrates the social, economic, cultural and political achievement of women, as well as highlighting that progress for gender equality has slowed in many places across the world. However, gender disparity in the criminal justice system has often been overlooked, despite the feminist movement attempting to be inclusive of all women’s issues.
Historically, women and offenders were seen to be outside of the moral boundaries of society thereby justifying their marginalisation. Today, female empowerment is a key concern in societies across the globe. Yet the rights of women in the criminal justice system are still excluded from a discussion that is designed to help all women regardless of their status, economic background and life experiences. Why are they not being represented in a conversation that is meant to address the needs of every woman?
#HerVoiceCounts wants to include those who are typically excluded from the conversation and to highlight their accomplishments. We want to emphasise that women’s rights in the criminal justice system encompass a range of rights that are crucial to the empowerment of women in society.
Her Voice Counts in mental health. Her Voice Counts in housing issues. Her Voice Counts in parental struggles. Her Voice Counts when celebrating accomplishments. On the 8th March we’re making Her Voice Count by giving these marginalised women the opportunity to share their stories. Read their stories on our website and stay updated using the hashtag #HerVoiceCounts. Join us in making #HerVoiceCounts.
Disclaimer: These stories are the views of individual service users and do not necessarily reflect the beliefs of User Voice.
I suffered a really volatile and traumatic childhood; I was sexually abused from a very young age and I didn’t really speak to anyone about it. I witnessed a lot of violence. One day I came home and my mum had been stabbed by a man who was obsessed with her, he later burnt our house down. We fled to the UK when I was 15, it was really tough coming to a new environment having gone through all of that. I felt like I didn’t fit in.
I left home at a very young age and got into an abusive relationship where I suffered domestic violence which started around the time I first became pregnant. When I left him the violence stopped but he was still mentally abusive and controlling. I had just had enough, so I took my kids without his consent and went abroad back to my own country; my intention was to never return.
My eldest son wanted to come home and I knew there would be a court battle whether I stayed or went back to the UK, so we returned. The court case was really traumatic; I was facing 7 years in prison and the trial wasn’t in my favour. I was messed around by solicitors which made the judge furious and hostile towards me. It was just crippling.
It was very hard being in prison, medical care within the prison system was very bad. As a result of stress I had a severe rash; I had to wait so long to be seen that my skin was completely raw and open to the point that I couldn’t turn over in bed.
Officers inside weren’t bad, but the prison was badly organised and understaffed. The food in the prison was really lacking. I know budgets are tight but you are already low on vitamin D in prison there should be more fresh food in the canteen.
I believe the key to rehabilitation is through treating people with love, care and respect. The reason I brought up my past is because it all added up to my offence; if I hadn’t been in that state I would never have left.
My experience with probation has not been ideal; my papers weren’t ready and my accommodation wasn’t sorted until the evening of my release which made me anxious. My probation officer has repeatedly told me how hard it is going to be to get my kids back. I find it very hard to hear this from them considering how important my kids are to me.
I thank god I’ve got through these hardships and for organisations like User Voice. They have really helped me to channel my emotions in the right way. I want to use my experiences to reach out to others, just by giving advice you can change someone’s life for the better. I look forward to a brighter future and I want to ensure that each day I’m alive I can sew a seed of happiness into someone’s life and do my part.
Happy International Women’s Day! #HerVoiceCounts
I was sent to prison for my first offence, leaving my son with his elderly grandfather. Not only did I have the shame of going to prison, but I had the guilt of leaving my son. For the first 6 months no-one seemed to care how I was feeling and I was told to just get on with it. The second prison I was sent to was better, however at the time my son was ill and all the guilt I felt came back, the prison made me feel even guiltier, I always felt that no-one wanted to listen, I still feel like no-one really wants to listen.
From my own experience it was my mental health and trauma from previous relationships that sent me on a path of destruction. It wasn’t until I started my probation order that I received the help I needed to live a happy and healthy lifestyle without committing crime. I feel more could be done to prevent women like myself being failed by various agencies and getting into the criminal justice system as far as I did. However with the help of the probation service and my officer I wouldn’t have the amazing life I have now and it keeps getting better.
Being a woman in the criminal justice system is hard. The challenges I faced in prison were based on fear. I was in prison for two and a half years, leaving behind my 3 year old son. That in itself was the biggest punishment a mother, especially who has bonded with their child, could face.
I struggled so hard to get ‘enhanced status’, and once I was ‘enhanced’, I felt like the Donkey with a carrot dangling in front of my eyes. I thought I would earn privileges based on positive behaviour and trust. I didn’t realise it meant I could not laugh too loud with the other women who were not ‘enhanced’ as this wasn’t ‘enhanced behaviour’. I also couldn’t knock on the office door while officers were on the phone and sometimes I missed last call for post due to my hearing impairment, which I repeatedly told them about.
I spent a lot of time crying when I would talk to my family on the phone regarding my son “you were the one that got locked up, maybe I should drop him at social services tomorrow morning”. This was something I was afraid to talk about as I didn’t want to end up on an Assessment, Care in Custody and Teamwork (ACCTs) document and be escorted everywhere, having an officer checking me every half hour and not be able to attend the gym -which was the only thing keeping me sane! I went onto anti-depressant medication which was ongoing through the full two and a half years I spent inside.
My main challenge was being myself in that environment. I didn’t feel like a human who was allowed to have emotions as each one whether it was being happy or depressed; it felt like a punishable offence, even the measures which are put in place to help. You have to restrict your emotions, personal views and pretty much your identity to survive. Everything I did in there was aimed at getting my Release on Temporary Licence (ROTLs) so that I could be with my son.
The worst thing I saw in prison was a girl in labour for 48 hours in her cell with only paracetamol to relieve the pain. I thought “get her to hospital for goodness sake! Anyone who’s been through childbirth knows that the last thing you’d want to do is run for your freedom”. Her screams that night were haunting.
The amount of women in Jail who had been abused and/or had been in care was massive. Many of these women have suffered terribly in their lives either: at the hands of abusers, due to homelessness or drug addiction among other things. Some put themselves back in jail for the security of three meals a day, a bed and to surround themselves with ‘friends’; these are things the outside world doesn’t offer them.
The issues I saw faced by other women is what made me become a ‘listener’ as I knew they were someone who women could open up to confidentially without fear of penalisation for their emotions. Without this role women’s issues, struggles and emotions are not likely to be expressed. There are many women in prison who should not be locked away from their families, children, jobs and lives; when, if listened to, they could have been given help appropriate to their needs.
I felt like I was nothing to the Criminal Justice System. I wasn’t a woman. I wasn’t a person. I was just a conviction number, something for their yearly figures.
They made me feel as if I was and only ever would be someone with a conviction; a tarnish on society. For someone whose insecurity was already at an all-time low it felt as if they had pushed me lower and at the time I felt beyond repair. I was judged by almost everyone I came across in the Criminal Justice System (CJS), they did not see a vulnerable woman at breaking point; instead they saw someone with malicious intent and went out of their way to treat me accordingly. The only part of the CJS that didn’t judge me and took the time to get to know me as a person and help me move forward was the women’s group I attended.
Quotes from Female Service Users
When I first went to jail all I could think about was what will happen to my kids? Where will they go? Who will look after them? I was really scared and worried and the worst thing was I didn’t know how to find out, who to ask.
What I really needed to help me stop re-offending was help and advice to escape a violent controlling partner. But I didn’t know who to ask, or how to ask.
When I was sent to prison I didn’t know what had happened, it was all a blur and I was scared. After 18 months no one was interested in me or my rehabilitation; I was just another number that had committed a crime.
Women who suffer or have suffered from domestic violence can sometimes enter into crime through no fault of their own and often because of their circumstances; these women are poorly represented in this area.
My mother was an alcoholic and suffered from severe depression. My siblings are all younger than me, so I felt it was my responsibility to provide for my family; that’s why I started shop lifting. I was 7.
From shop lifting my criminal activity escalated to prostitution and taking drugs; at the age of 10 I was dealing through the letter box for my mum. I didn’t have an education; I was expelled from school when I was 13 but I was good at committing crimes so I kept doing that.
When I was in prison nothing was dealt with. You might get a few officers who wanted to help you but you don’t see them very often. I’d do a few months and then be sent back to the town I was arrested in; I’m not from there but that’s where I ended up so I kept being sent back to the same place. I didn’t have any support there so I kept falling back into old patterns. I still can’t go through there without having panic attacks. That period had a bad effect on my life.
It was only when I had a lengthy sentence that I got more help. I started getting involved in programmes and I saw a doctor. I was diagnosed with different mental illnesses, so when I came out of jail I made sure they gave me the help I needed. I was lucky that I had that support, otherwise who knows what would have happened.
I didn’t realise at the time but as a mother and a woman going to prison was very traumatic for me. Because the system is designed for men, it doesn’t work for women. That’s why it’s taken me so long to learn to cope. There’s so much that still needs to be done for women. So many still suffer in silence.
People don’t understand what I’ve been through and what I still have to deal with daily. I’ve been labelled disruptive, a menace and a nuisance. It’s easy to label people and just see them all as an ex-offender, but it’s important to remember that we’re all individuals; we’ve got different stories that have led to this moment. I was severely sexually abused as a child and into adulthood, but people don’t always believe you. I’m 47 now and I’ve finally got a rape councillor. I’m still carrying these scars.
I’m done with blaming people and being angry, these are just the cards I’ve been dealt. I’ve found new ways to cope. Working has really helped me and given me confidence. I’ve been given a second chance. I have three daughters and three granddaughters and I don’t want my experiences to affect them. I had to go through all of this to get to where I am today. It’s made me who I am.
Women seem to get a rough deal in the Criminal Justice System; the courts don’t seem to understand the wider implications when sending mothers to prison. What happens to their children especially if they are a single parent and no-one within the wider family circle can take care of the children? They have to go into care and the tax payer has to pay; and what about the impact that it has on the children?
There needs to be more women’s centres across the country which are open longer and on a weekend, not just a couple of hours once a week.
I firmly believe that if that one probation officer hadn’t actually taken the time to listen to my story and genuinely help me I would have certainly re-offended by now; the difference was being heard.
I first got in trouble when I was 16. Since then I have been in trouble with the law 30 times and been to prison once. I’ve breached the terms of my probation lots; I’ve been taken back to court and fined for those breaches. But probation is just ticking a box next to your name on a piece of paper. None of my issues were being sorted; I didn’t get any help with my underlying issues. So I was stuck in a cycle of getting in trouble and being in court. I felt like I was trapped; like there was a constant noose around my neck. I didn’t get the help I needed.
It was only once I went to prison that I realised I wanted to get out. I didn’t want to go to prison again. But even after I got out I didn’t get help. It was only because of the support from my family and friends that I got the help I needed. The prison service just gave me £40 and told me to go on my way.
It’s much harder for women than men in prison. Women are keepers of homes and families and once we’re out we need to start that all again from scratch with no support. I had kids while I was in prison but no one was interested that I had to leave them.
Every mum goes through turmoil in prison. You’re constantly worrying about your children, if they’re ok, if they’re being looked after. You can’t focus on anything else. Lots of women turn to drugs to cope because you’re just constantly worrying about the outside world.
I haven’t been in trouble for 5 years now and I’m in a better place.
It was my first offence and I was sent to prison. While there I was accused of taking drugs by the prison nurse, even though I had never been on drugs, they didn’t believe me. I had never been away from my husband in 40 years, but they didn’t care; all they said was get used to it.
When I got out of prison there wasn’t anyone to help me, I didn’t know what to expect, I didn’t know what to do, all my self-respect had gone but no-one cared.
I felt the justice system failed me as an individual. All they saw was black and white and not the grey in between, they wouldn’t listen to me and they wouldn’t listen to others who were trying to defend me, I was just a woman who had committed a crime.
I used to suffer with depression; going to prison made it worse because I was separated from my children. I saw a doctor while I was in prison, but I wasn’t receiving the right kind of medical help and guidance. I was put on medication that made me feel weird and zombiefied; I didn’t have control over my own feelings. I was just left to suffer in silence. What I really needed was counselling.
I still remember the first time I rang home from prison, my children’s father asked me if I wanted to speak to my kids, but I couldn’t. I was so distraught that I wasn’t able to care for them as a mother. I just cried. Even when they came to see me during the visiting time, it made me feel more depressed. I didn’t get any one-to-one time with them, no privacy. Every child needs their mum around but that doesn’t always get thought about during sentencing.
I feel like after my sentence, it didn’t stop there. I used to go to bed at 6:45 because that’s the routine they had put me in. Sometimes I’d be in bed before my kids. It just made me more isolated. After spending only a few months in prison I became really depressed and felt helpless to what was going on at home with my kids and their upbringing. I had no control, no one listened.
It’s taken me a long time to get to where I am. Working helped me more than medication. Working with User Voice got me out the house and has given me more confidence. I’ve given speeches in front of lots of people, which I wouldn’t have been able to do before.