I’ve been putting off reading Prisonomics by Vicky Pryce because I’ve known and liked and admired her for many years, and was absolutely shocked by her getting a prison sentence. In the book she says she had her first good sleep for a long time on her first night in Holloway, after the stress of two trials and the media frenzy, but I spent that night sleepless worrying about what the experience would do to her. The book is her account of her time in prison, and what she learned from both personal experience and subsequent research. I’m very glad to have read it. It’s actually a page turner, well-written, full of information and insight, and a powerful analysis of the extremely poor value the UK gets from the way its criminal justice system treats women. And it turns out Vicky coped well with being in Holloway and then one of the country’s only two open prisons for women, thanks in large part to the support she got from other prisoners.
It wasn’t really a surprise to learn that imprisoning women is terrible for their children, has no deterrent effect, and that lots of women in prison have mental health and drug problems. But the figures set out in the book are staggering. The research suggests 40% of women in UK prisons have learning diificulties, and 48% have a reading age of 11 or lower. Nor did I know that prisoners are released with just £46 even if they have no accommodation – many (4 in 10) lose their homes while inside, and the book tells of one woman deemed by her local authority to have made herself ‘intentionally homeless’ (and therefore not meriting housing) by being sent to prison. Ex-prisoners find it hard to get jobs because they have to declare their convictions. Reoffending rates are high after prison sentences at least in part because of sheer desperation.
Very few women prisoners have committed violent crimes, yet the high rate of imprisonment in the UK (compared to other countries) inflicts dreadful emotional violence on their children, contributing to family breakup and children going into care – and thus increasing the likelihood of their lives deteriorating. There is so clearly an overwhelming value for money case for spending public funds on helping women bring order to their lives, getting training and jobs, rather than imprinsoning them at high cost and with adverse effects on the rest of their lives and their children’s. Yet the UK saw a 27% rise in the women’s prison population between 1996 and 2011. We have a public culture that emphasises retribution in criminal justice and that demonises women too.
So Vicky’s book makes a powerful case for change, and her experience has turned her into a ardent campaigner for reform. I do recommend reading it, not only for its inherent merit but also because royalties go to the charity Working Chance. But it’s depressing too. The system is awful. But can you imagine a single high-profile politician campaigning for criminal justice reform rather than competing to appear ‘tough’ on crime? There is truth in the cliche: you can’t reason people out of what they were never reasoned into.