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prison has been the eventual ‘home’ for them for years, and, in housing them, prisons are fulfilling their shameful historical role.

We asked the 26 professionals interviewed what, in their opinion, sentencers are nowadays hoping to achieve by sending women to prison. The 24 who felt they had enough knowledge to answer the question usually gave more than one explanation. Twenty one said words to the effect that they thought that sentencers saw prison as a last resort for recidivist female drug users and, moreover, that sentencers mistakenly thought that, whereas there was little for women in the way of rehabilitative services outside prison, in prison, women, especially drug users, would either receive such services or at least not be able to get drugs (another misconception!). According to these respondents, sentencers’ lack of faith in non-custodial penalities (see also Hough et al 2003), coupled with the desire to get drug users away from drug-using friends, made them feel that prison was the best of a very narrow range of options. Five respondents also thought that because sentencers were seeing more women coming through the courts they had ceased to treat them chivalrously, were seeing them as more ‘threatening’ (because of their increased numbers, not because of any increase in the seriousness of their crimes) and hoped that the ‘short, sharp shock’ of a prison sentence would be a deterrent at both individual and the general level. Four respondents were very strongly of the opinion that the rapid increase in the female prison population was a result of the government giving out very mixed messages to sentencers: on the one hand telling them to use prison sparingly, but at the same time, and with much more emphasis, telling the public in general that the courts will be encouraged to be ‘tough on crime’. Three respondents thought that sensationalised media reports of ‘girl gangs’ and TV prison soaps portraying women’s prisons as being full of ‘macho’ characters and ‘sex bombs’ had also added to sentencers’ perceptions of a ‘new female criminal’ (see Worrall 2002). Only one respondent was of the opinion that women are ‘committing much more ‘macho’ crimes, though, when pressed, he could not give reasons to support this view. However, several of the women prisoners and ex-prisoners thought that they had been sent to prison because the magistrates had, in despair, begun to believe, that drug users would only stop thieving to fund their habits if they were locked up. One prisoner described her own case as an example of ‘last resort’ sentencing:

The day before I got sent here I had offended twice. I stole a boxed set of DVDs from Virgin Megastore. I was bailed from court on the Monday and it took me less than 20 minutes to re- offend. I was bailed at 5 past 12 and, at 17 minutes past 12 I was arrested for stealing a boxed set of DVDs from HMV. That’s what drugs do to you. They sent me here [prison] next day. (P5)

Overall, it seems that women who might previously have been given a community (non custodial) sentence are nowadays more likely to be sent to prison if

  • their material and psychological needs are perceived to constitute a likely cause of recidivist criminal activity

  • they have behavioural difficulties defined as ‘personality disorders’ which, under the mental health legislation, are not considered as being eligible for ‘treatment’

  • they are seen to be in need of a ‘short, sharp shock’ (even if only while on remand before conviction or sentence)

  • they are homeless or otherwise seen to be in need of ‘protection’

  • they are drug-users for whom it is thought drugs treatment is available in prison


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