This article was first published by the Economist on 1 April. I liberated it because it deserves freedom and to be more widely read.
Women in prison - by Martha Gill
Female prisoners are more badly behaved than male ones
Bad behaviour behind bars
AS A rule, women behave better than men, or are less frequently caught out: they make up just 5% of Britain’s prison population. Even these troublemakers are gentler than the opposite sex. In 2014 eight in ten women prisoners were jailed for non-violent offences, compared with seven in ten male prisoners.
Behind bars, however, a different trend emerges. It is women who more frequently run up against prison rules. In 2014 there were 137 punishments doled out per 100 women but only 105 for every 100 men. They are also more violent, committing 52 assaults on staff per 1,000 female prisoners in 2015 whereas the male rate was 45. Why do women behave so badly in prison?
Diego Gambetta, a sociologist, says women make rougher inmates because they take longer to establish a hierarchy. Fighting, he says, “is an information-seeking device”, and although the toughest men sport large muscles and scars, the toughest women are harder to spot without a scrap. Another theory is that female prisoners are trickier to manage because they are more likely to suffer from mental illness: in 2015 26% of them (and 16% of male inmates) had had a psychiatric admission before going to prison. A third argument is that female jails are less crowded, so unruly prisoners are easier to spot.
The explanation that many academics and think-tanks favour is that guards are less tolerant towards women. A 1994 study of Texan prisons found that wardens in female prisons demanded total compliance but those in male prisons did not. Ellie Butt at the Howard League, a prison-reform charity, thinks little has changed. Female inmates, she says, are considered doubly deviant—“a woman, and a criminal?” says one female ex-con, “You’re practically Myra Hindley!” Guards may be more likely to write up and punish women’s verbal assaults on staff than men’s.
Government figures hint this is true. “Disobedience or disrespect” was the reason for 44% of punishments given to female prisoners in 2014 compared with 39% of those handed out to men. Farah Damji, who has spent time in prison, says male guards were particularly keen to put her in her place. “It was a sense of, you think you have some status in the outside world? I’ll show you,” she says. Ms Butt reckons such treatment contributes to the disproportionate levels of self-harm committed by women—26% of the prison-system total in 2014. Punishments were designed for men, says Juliet Lyon at the Prison Reform Trust, a charity, and are often a bad fit for women.
There are some promising signs of change. Since 2006 the rates of female assaults on staff have more than halved whereas male assault rates have stayed roughly flat. The gap between male and female punishment rates has also narrowed. One reason, Ms Lyon says, is that staff are learning more about working with prisoners who have suffered trauma.
A different approach altogether might work better. Women fare worse than men after prison: they are more likely to reoffend after sentences shorter than 12 months, the type they most commonly receive. They do better on alternative measures, though. Around 95% complete community-service sentences, but only 76% of men do. If jail turns women into Walter White, the anti-hero of the television series “Breaking Bad”, there is a case for not putting them there in the first place.