As part of the Raising Voices exhibition Shire Hall has focused on two women who went to trial at Shire Hall, exploring how women were perceived by a male dominated criminal justice system in the 18 and 1900s. If we look at the criminal justice system today has very much changed?
Historically women have always been in a minority in the criminal justice system so it is a system designed for the majority in which women are neglected. Yet the UK has one of the highest rates of women’s imprisonment in Western Europe.
Currently 5% of the prison population are women and 15 % of those serving a community sentence. Women are more likely to be in prison for acquisitive crime – theft, fraud and sex work for example – rather than violent or serious crimes so are more likely to serve short but disruptive sentences.
However, women in prison are more likely to have been victims themselves. Over 50% of women in prison have reported experiencing abuse as a child and, like Martha Brown, almost 60% have experienced domestic abuse.
Far more women than men in the criminal justice system are primary carers, up to 30% have dependent children. A prison sentence for a woman not only has consequences for herself but is likely to have consequences for the children too. Charlotte Bryant had five children who she left in the care of her mother in Derry. Today it is estimated that 170,000 children are separated from their mother each year, and one fifth of the women were lone parents before their imprisonment. There are only 12 women’s prisons in the UK so many women are over 60 miles away from home meaning those with children are unlikely to see their children very often if at all.
Women in prison are more likely to have mental health issues and suffer from drug addictions than men. 49% suffer from anxiety and depression and self-harm rates are five times higher for women than for men in prison.
While the conditions that a female prisoner may find herself in now may have improved somewhat from what Martha Brown and Charlotte Bryant experienced, their backgrounds and life experiences may not be so different today.
To read more or to get support there are several organisations working with women in the criminal justice system, here are just a few: