Is it a crime to be poor?

By Claire Cain, WIP's Campaigns & Public Affairs Manager

This comment piece was first published with the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies.

The great Angela Davis wrote in Are Prisons Obsolete?:

The prison therefore functions ideologically as an abstract site into which undesirables are deposited, relieving us of the responsibility of thinking about the real issues afflicting those communities from which prisoners are drawn in such dispro­portionate numbers. This is the ideological work that the prison performs, it relieves us of the responsibility of seri­ously engaging with the problems of our society, especially those produced by racism and, increasingly, global capitalism.

— Angela Davis

Last year, Women in Prison (WIP) supported a client we’ll call Sarah, who was homeless upon release from prison. Against all the odds, we managed to find her a flat, which would be available two weeks’ later. Sarah knew she would have to sleep rough for the following couple of weeks before moving into her new place.

The new flat was in a different probation area. We informed everyone of her circumstances and tried to find emergency accommodation to cover the two weeks - to no avail. It was a difficult time but, finally, the day arrived when she moved into her new home.

She called probation and asked who she should check in with and where the new probation office was located. The response was that she needed to present herself to the nearest police station, as there was a warrant out for her arrest for having breached her licence conditions.

A 'period of stability would do her good'

Sarah was recalled back to prison. This created significant risk to keeping her new flat. It also meant she missed an appointment that had taken many weeks to set up, to start the process of bringing her children home, taking them out of the Care System. This would only be possible once she had somewhere to live. Being sent back to prison therefore proved a huge setback for Sarah. Interestingly, her record said that she had been recalled as a ‘period of stability would do her good’.

The UK has a chronic overuse and misuse of prison. We have supported many women like Sarah who have been imprisoned as a result of being homeless.

We have also supported women unlawfully imprisoned in relation to debt from non-payment of council tax.

The failures and harms of imprisonment

Nearly half of all women sent to prison are sentenced for theft – most commonly shoplifting. One woman we support was in prison for stealing bread and another had stolen some nappies. This overuse of prison could, at best, be seen as those passing sentence seeing prison as some sort of refuge, as the only option available in their opinion, . At worst, they use prison as a place of convenience, as Angela Davies outlines, to deal under one roof with people society has failed.

Both reasons are misguided. Prison actively causes harm to anyone who comes into contact with it: that’s what they are built for – to punish. Prison harms a person’s physical and mental health. For many women, the experience of imprisonment mirrors their experience of violence and abuse and re-traumatises them. Many women do not survive the experience of imprisonment.

As Sarah’s story demonstrates, imprisonment actively reduces social circumstances and opportunities to move forward. Time in prison creates significant barriers for people to secure a home or find employment; it perpetuates the experiences of poverty that led them into contact with the criminal justice system in the first place.

From poverty to prison to poverty again

The level of poverty among the women we support is really quite extreme. Our client data from the last financial quarter shows that around 22 per cent of the women we currently support report to us as homeless.

Nationally, around a third of women in prison are evicted from their home whilst in custody. Not only do they lose the roof over their head, but all their possessions are thrown out, as they have nowhere to store them or cannot pay for them to be taken away. It is not uncommon for us to meet with women on release at the Gate who only have prison issue clothing and no winter coat or appropriate shoes. Last year, we provided 113 small grants of £25 to women in prison to cover basic necessities such as clothing and toiletries. The women we support in London never use the Underground due to the cost; they use the phone in the women’s centre to make calls related to support needs or to contact children, as they have no phone credit, and we issue food bank vouchers and bus tickets on a weekly basis.

Offer jobs and housing, not prisons

It is therefore urgent to ask: what is the solution to such situations? The real answer lies in an end to criminal justice solutions for social justice issues, with investment in housing and jobs, not in building prisons. But we, at WIP, offer some smaller stepping-stones in our #OPENUP manifesto where we outline 10 Solutions to reducing the women’s prison population and to #OPENUP Women’s Futures.

The central ask lies in the UK’s globally unique network of Women’s Centres which have been developed since the Corston Report in 2007 and are key to the success of the Ministry of Justice’s (MoJ) recent strategy for women - the Female Offender Strategy. Women’s Centres offer a one-stop-shop of support and enable women to address the root causes of their offending without having to overcome the additional harm caused by prison to themselves and their children.

There are around 35 Women’s Centres across the country, but they need investment to survive and to grow. Last year, the government sold off HMP Holloway – the only women’s prison in London – and received around £80m. We’re calling on this money to be invested in the network of Women’s Centres and to deliver the MoJ’s own strategy which commits to reducing the women’s prison population.