Hudson (2002) has argued that nowadays many women (and men too, for that matter) are being sent to prison not because of the seriousness of the crime for which they were convicted but, rather, because, with the decline of the welfare state, the extreme social neediness (e.g. homelessness, poverty, victimisation by male physical and sexual abuse, poor health and lack of educational and employment opportunities) of some lawbreaking women is no longer being seen as an excusing condition deserving of receipt of extra welfare benefits, but is, instead, being translated, via a ‘risk of recidivism’ index, into the likelihood of their committing crime again in the future, and thereby constructing them as candidates for imprisonment. More women prisoners are in poverty (and therefore ‘at risk’) than male prisoners, hence the disproportionately increasing numbers of female prisoners.
Carlen (2004), taking the argument in a slightly different direction, although still expressing the same concern that the promise of in-prison rehabilitation may be a cause of the rapidly increasing prison population has argued that some of the increases in the female prison population may be explained not so much by an increase in punitiveness on the part of sentencers but, rather, by their belief that women with multiple problems are more likely to receive the help they need in prison. She further argues that this hope is rooted in the susceptibility of sentencers to the prison industry’s claims about the capabilities of psychological programming to reduce recidivism. Several of the agents interviewed said words to the effect that: magistrates have a ‘perception that prison has lots of rehab’ (A.25); and ‘Courts think that prisons provide programmes that will help women (A.10); and in previous studies Carlen found that women with seemingly intractable social and mental health problems are often sent to prison because no other agency is prepared to give them the shelter and support which they so obviously need and because sentencers think that they will at least get some help in prison (Carlen 1983; 1998).
In the last few years remand prisoners have constituted between 20%-25% of the female prison population at an one time, but of those remanded in custody less than one third receive a custodial sentence. The high proportion of unconvicted females held on remand in prison and subsequently given a non-custodial sentence has also given rise to some concern that women are being held in prison on remand unnecessarily, and that factors are being taken into consideration other than those which courts are supposed to consider when considering whether or not to remand in custody. As is the case with many sentenced women prisoners, there is also the suspicion that women are remanded in custody not because of the seriousness of their crimes but either because the courts think that they will not answer bail or because sentencers are acting paternally and are remanding women for their own protection.
Certainly research has indicated that women on remand often appear to have had more severe mental health problems prior to their imprisonment, to be much higher suicide risks and to have more acute problems of addiction. Additionally, more of them have been expelled from school and more have been homeless just at the time of the offence (Prison Reform Trust 2000). If, therefore, as Hudson (2002) has argued, exceptional social need is being equated with risk of recidivism and if, furthermore, concerned sentencers believe the claims of the psychological programmers that in-prison programming can help reduce recidivism (Kendall 2002) it is small wonder that more and more women are going to prison even before they have been found guilty or sentenced. As for those women lawbreakers who have been defined as having ‘personality disorders’ and therefore ‘untreatable’ under the Mental Health legislation,