Barbaric treatment of women prisoners

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 129 February/March 1996

Holloway prison in north London first hit the headlines on 19 December 1995 when the new Chief Inspector of Prisons, Sir David Ramsbotham, pulled his team out midway through an inspection, disgusted at the squalor of Britain’s largest women’s gaol. Nicki Jameson reports.

Ramsbotham’s reaction must have come as a shock to the Home Secretary, who undoubtedly expected the ex-military man would give him an easy ride, in contrast to the eight years of criticism which the Home Office and Prison Service had been subjected to by the previous Chief Inspector, Judge Stephen Tumim.

Among the things which particularly horrified Ramsbotham and his team were massive rats inside the gaol, piles of rotting faeces, food and tampons thrown from cell windows and women with headlice who could not obtain medicated shampoo.

More fundamentally, the inspectorate witnessed the degrading treatment of mentally ill prisoners, victims of abuse and some of the many foreign nationals who end up in Holloway. They also blew the whistle, and not a moment too soon, on the treatment of pregnant women, particularly regarding the barbaric practice of chaining them and any other prisoner attending the nearby Whittington Hospital.

I went to the Whittington myself in June 1995 to see a friend who had just had a baby. In the corridor outside the maternity ward I saw a woman who was chained to two male screws and accompanied by another female one. She had given birth to her child three hours earlier and was subjected to this medieval rigmarole in order to have a cigarette. It was a gruesome spectacle and to me at the time a measure of public indifference that nobody else passing by appeared to be shocked.

But shocked and outraged the public at large has certainly been since the full extent of the practice of shackling has been revealed. The normally anti-prisoner (but also anti-Tory) Daily Mirror ran a photo-montage of Home Office Minister Anne Widdecombe, depicting her chained to a hospital bed, with a ‘How would you like it?’ headline, the day after she publicly defended the practice on ‘security’ grounds. Both Alan Howarth MP, who defected from Tory to Labour in July 1995, and Emma Nicholson, who switched from Tory to Lib-Dem in the midst of the Holloway furore, cited their horror at the chaining of women prisoners as a deciding factor in their change of allegiances. Indeed, the revelations of barbarity were too much for most of the British middle classes to stomach, far too close to the sort of inhumane practices they condemn in other ‘less civilised’ countries, and (no doubt with half an eye to gaining a few more Tory wets in the process) both Labour and Lib-Dems were forced to speak out against chaining in uncharacteristically strong terms.

There followed a series of slightly bizarre discussions about whether midwives should go to the prison instead of prisoners to the hospital and when exactly labour begins, culminating finally in a government climbdown.

Welcome as this reversal must be to any women faced with the prospect of giving birth in custody, the real question remains as to why anyone in their right minds would want to send pregnant women or those with tiny babies to prison in the first place.

Who are these dangerous women?*

The female prison population is very small in comparison to the male one; however, it too is growing. On 30 June 1995 the number of women in prison in England and Wales reached a record 2,002; 7% more than the previous year and 24% more than on 30 June 1990. In comparison the male prison population has risen by 5 and 12% respectively.

A high proportion of female prisoners are on remand: 27% on 30 June 1994. Many women remanded in custody do not ultimately receive prison sentences. Only 26% of women remanded in custody in 1993 were subsequently sentenced to imprisonment, compared to 41% of male remand prisoners.

Approximately half of all sentenced female prisoners are gaoled for either theft, handling or deception charges, or for drugs offences. 36% of women sent to prison in 1993 were fine defaulters. In 1994, 260 women were gaoled for not having a TV licence. In a report into Risley prison in 1994, the Chief Inspector of Prisons noted that up to 60% of sentenced women there were fine defaulters and that the numbers had ‘doubled over the past three or four months’. Approximately 40% of sentenced women prisoners have no previous convictions (compared to 17% of men). A quarter of women prisoners are black or from other ethnic minorities; many of these are foreign nationals arrested for drugs importation and deported on completion of their sentences.

So has the chaining ended?

For women in labour or attending antenatal classes hopefully the ordeal of chaining is over. The government has, of course, left itself a get-out clause whereby women will be handcuffed on the way to hospital, unshackled in a waiting room and re-manacled before they leave, ‘unless there is a particularly high risk of escape’.

For other prisoners attending hospital, even in extreme circumstances, there will be no change. In 1994 Kurdish prisoner Cafer Kovaycin was chained to a hospital bed while receiving treatment for 40-degree burns, following a violent attack on him; Irish POW Patrick Kelly was similarly treated following an operation for skin cancer in 1995. Such barbarities will continue against both male and female prisoners. ■

* Facts and figures from NACRO Briefing on Women in Prison, September 1995.

FRFI planned to publish an article on Holloway by Clare Barstow, a long-term prisoner now in HMP Durham, who has spent a considerable amount of time in Holloway. Her article was posted to our office twice and on both occasions mysteriously never arrived.

Stop press

Seven prisoners have been paid £4,500 each by the Prison Service in an out-of-court settlement as compensation for the stress and trauma they suffered when the 1990 Strangeways revolt began, and prison staff abandoned the gaol. Other prisoners are now expected to pursue similar claims.


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