Irish Penal Reform Trust

The Conversation: Criminalising vulnerability – the issue of women’s prisons

2nd August 2019

This week in The Conversation, Gillian McNaull, lecturer in criminology at Queen’s University Belfast, writes on the issue of women in prison. As is the case in Irish prisons, Northern Ireland has seen a steady increase in the numbers of women in custody in recent years. The numbers housed in Ash House unit, the only facility for women in Northern Ireland, based in Hydebank prison, are currently at a record high. In previous reports, the Criminal Justice Inspectorate has called for the establishment of a dedicated women’s prison that can be better tailored to the unique needs of female prisoners.

More often than not female offenders in Northern Ireland are committed to prison for short sentences that are handed down in response to non-violent crimes. Another evident trend is that a higher percentage of women are held in prison on remand than is the case for men. 

These trends can also be observed in the Irish prison system. Recently, an article in The Journal referencing data from the Irish Prison Service indicated that 95% of women in custody are incarcerated for minor crimes such as shoplifting and handling stolen goods. And, similarly, the percentage of women held on remand in Ireland is also higher than that for men. The article describes the complex background of women in Irish prisons, who have often experienced major personal trauma, and the challenges this can present. IPRT’s position paper, Women in the Criminal Justice System – Towards A Non-Custodial Approach, has highlighted that women in custody tend to come from a background of social disadvantage, poverty, substance dependency, and poor family support.

Likewise, Gillian McNaull points out the extreme vulnerability of women on remand. Importantly, her research with women in custody demonstrates that, for many women, prison can provide reprieve from issues of mental health, suicidality, alcohol or substance abuse, or homelessness. Unsupported for these issues in their own communities, women seek the safety, stability, and access to services that prison can provide. But this also means that prison is effectively being used as a stopgap by the vulnerable and marginalised where social supports are not being effectively provided.

There is a need for greater recognition of the issue of the growing number of women in prison, but more importantly, to recognise the complexity of the social issues underpinning this growth. Gillian McNaull calls for the diversion of women from custodial measures, the diversion of women from arrest, and to address the gaps in social supports within or communities.

You can read Gillian McNaull’s article in The Conversation here.

The Journal article, by G. Gataveckaite, R. Halpin, G. Hogan, C. McMullan and J. Williams, on women in Irish prisons, can be read here.

The Irish Penal Reform Trust’s position paper Women in the Criminal Justice System – Towards A Non-Custodial Approach is available here.

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