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Almost all women in Irish prisons are there for committing petty crime

95% of women in jail are committed for crimes such as shoplifting, failure to pay fines or handling stolen goods.

File photo of gardaí outside Mountjoy Prison, where the Dóchas Centre is located
File photo of gardaí outside Mountjoy Prison, where the Dóchas Centre is located
Image: Sasko Lazarov/RollingNews.ie

ALMOST ALL WOMEN in Irish prisons are serving sentences for committing petty crimes, an analysis of statistics shows.

Irish Prison Service data for 2017 shows that 95% of women who were incarcerated received sentences for crimes such as shoplifting or handling stolen goods.

Substance abuse and homelessness were the main reasons behind the offences, according to experts.

1,081 women and 6,403 men received prison sentences in Ireland, according to 2017 Irish Prison Service figures.

79% of men received prison sentences for petty crimes, significantly less than the percentage of women as fewer men commit petty crime.

In 2017, nearly all women served sentences less than a year long, with three-quarters of women imprisoned for less than three months.

Mary O’Connor, governor of the Dóchas Centre, a medium security female prison in Dublin, said that the women serving sentences are some of the most vulnerable women in the country, and some of them have very complex needs.

This was echoed by David Williamson, senior probation officer with the Irish Probation Service.

“Needless to say people who come into the criminal justice system have higher than average issues of trauma, of addiction, of mental health issues,” he said.

O’Connor said that the two biggest factors that lead women to commit petty crimes are substance abuse and homelessness.

She added that homeless women are being released from prison without anywhere to go and that this issue is getting worse as homelessness increases.

“Society seems to have just accepted that people will be homeless,” she said.

Probation services, including addiction specialists and community-based organisations, work with former prisoners to help them reintegrate into society, but the homeless crisis has made this more difficult. Women leaving prison might be given emergency accommodation of one night in a hostel, and after that, they are fending for themselves.

Cycle of crime

Governor O’Connor explained that in a lot of cases, women came through the prison system several times.

“Some people do 20 years – not because they have a life sentence, but because they can’t break the cycle of crime,” she said.

She also referred to a lack of residential rehabilitation services. “Women have a unique problem; [there are] very few residential treatments for women and some of the women have children,” O’Connor said.

00006610_6610 A room in the Dóchas Centre Source: RollingNews.ie

Teresa Clarke, regional manager of Mountjoy Prison visitors centre agrees. “95% of [women in prison] should be in addiction or mental health services… putting them into prison serves absolutely no purpose,” she said.

The Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) is a non-governmental organisation campaigning for the rights of everyone in prison and the progressive reform of Irish penal policy.

The IPRT stated that ‘less serious’ crimes receive sentences of 12 months or less and that prison should only be used as a last resort.

“Anything that’s attracting a sentence of 12 months or less is by definition less serious,” said Fíona Ní Chinnéide, Acting Executive Director of the IPRT.

Petty crimes include shoplifting, a failure to pay fines and possession of drugs, according to the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul.

The Fines (Payment and Recovery Act) 2014 which came into effect in January 2016 allows court-ordered fines to be paid in instalments. This significantly reduced the overall number of imprisonments for non-payment of fines. However, the percentage of women being committed for petty crimes remains higher than the percentage of men.

“We can’t just put up a no vacancy sign”

In Ireland, a community service order can be imposed by a judge for sentences that are less than 12 months long. This can only happen after the Probation Service has carried out a community service report, and these reports are at the request of the court. A community service report assesses if the convicted person understands the process, agrees to complete it, is suitable for it, and if there is community service work available.

However, a lack of suitable community service in some cases, has led to more women being given prison sentences causing overcrowding at women’s prisons.

“The only options available to judges are prison, maybe addiction treatment centres which are always full, maybe suspended sentences,” said Clarke.

Ireland has ten men’s prisons and two women’s prisons – the women’s wing at Limerick Prison and the Dóchas Centre at Mountjoy Prison.

The Dóchas Centre has a capacity of 105, yet in January, the prison had a population of 146 women.

Some of the single rooms at the prison have had to double up with bunk beds as a way of dealing with overcrowding.

“We can’t just put up a no vacancy sign,” said O’Connor.

00099335_99335 An empty corridor in the Dóchas Centre Source: RollingNews.ie

Ní Chinnéide explained that while 3.8% of people in prison on a given day are women, about 20% of yearly committals (admission to prison) are women. The percentage of women who are held in prison on remand (pre-trial) is much higher than the percentage of men.

“That’s a big concern,” said Ní Chinnéide.

“Why are women being held pre-trial in higher numbers? It’s not because they present a higher danger to society; it’s perhaps more often because they present a danger to themselves.”

Research published by the IPRT in 2013 found that as well as substance dependency and accommodation problems, female offenders tend to come from a background of poverty and social disadvantage, and many suffer from mental health difficulties.

These issues contribute to the difficulties for some of these women to adhere to bail conditions or to succeed with community service, and this has led to an overuse of remand for female offenders.

Imprisonment also has negative implications for the children of these women and damages the employment prospects for the women in the future.

Williamson explained that finding alternatives to custody to address these issues is ‘at the heart of probation’.

“[People who come into the criminal justice system] are lower than average on educational and employment achievement and suffer greater levels of social disadvantage,” he said.

“Working with women presents additional difficulties given inherent gender inequalities that can compound what are often complex situations,” he added.

Lack of consistency in sentencing and unconscious bias of judges

As well as relapsing drug addictions and an endless cycle of homelessness, experts who work with prisoners say that women are being put in prison for petty crime due to an unconscious bias of judges.

“Judges need to work against the bias that they’re not aware of,” said Aisling Meyler, Community Support Scheme Manager at Care After Prison (CAP), a national criminal justice charity supporting people affected by imprisonment and their families.

Unconscious bias, according to the Implicit Association Test conducted by the University of Washington and Yale, is a “tool that measures the unconscious roots of prejudice”.

“The judiciary needs access to skills and training, although there are those who are proactive in educating themselves on alternatives to imprisonment,” said Grace Costigan, a Community Support Worker at CAP.

Meyler explained that although their sentencing may be well-intentioned, unconscious ethnic and class biases can mean that a high proportion of women in poverty and women from the Traveller community are given prison sentences.

“There doesn’t seem to be much consistency in sentencing,” added Meyler.

Criminal Courts of Justice The Courts of Criminal Justice in Dublin, where many such cases would be heard Source: PA Archive/PA Images

“Every judge has their own way of sentencing,” said Gillian Hussey, a retired judge. She explained that there are “unwritten rules in the higher courts, but not the lower courts”, and that someone could get a different sentence from her than from another judge.

“I have to say a lot of judges aren’t [streetwise], you don’t have to be,” Hussey added. But Meyler feels that better knowledge and understanding of the life circumstances of these women, along with regular skills updates, would be beneficial to the judicial system.

Chaotic lives

As well as the unconscious bias, women can also receive sentences for petty crime due to a breakdown in communication between the prison, judicial and probation systems.

Meyler said that addressing housing issues, providing more detox beds and more access to treatment centres would help the situation for a lot of these women. “Prison should not be used to detox, but it is,” she said.

She added that in some cases, women had resorted to committing crimes to get a custodial sentence so that they could access housing or get a break from their chaotic lives.

Asked if there are other alternatives, Meyler said that community service was one option open to judges, but often the terms of the community service were not flexible enough to allow for the fact that some of the women had child caring responsibilities.

“Some of these women might have been given chances with probation or alternatives to custody in the past, but don’t have the capacity to meet probation conditions or community service,” she said.

Meyler also said that Ireland has been criticised for not having enough alternatives, including a lack of restorative justice practices, in comparison to countries such as Norway, Switzerland and the Netherlands.

“But then you go maybe even out to the general population, and they’re happy with it – lock them up and throw the key away…” said Clarke. “The government doesn’t have to worry about the people – the masses. The masses are happy with our justice system, so the government is happy,” she added.

Dr Christina Quinlan, Senior Lecturer in Criminology and Criminal Justice in De Montfort University in the UK, wrote in her 2011 book ‘Inside Ireland’s Women’s Prisons’ that a distinguishing feature of women’s imprisonments is and has been the “imprisonment of poor marginalised women for crimes related to poverty and addictions.”

In her research, Dr Quinlan has referred to the need for reform and argued that imprisonment should only be in response to serious offences and that other methods could be devised to deal with smaller offences.

Criminal Courts of Justice opening Dublin A courtroom in the Criminal Courts of Justice Source: PA Archive/PA Images

Joanna Joyce, a former barrister and the co-author of an IPRT report, said that further research is needed on why women may be treated differently at sentencing than men. She suggested that female offending may be viewed differently to male offending due to traditional perceptions.

Women have been convicted for petty crimes for a long time. Over the last three decades, there has been a shift towards drug-related offences, which include the possession or supply of drugs.

Clarke noted that shoplifting, handling stolen goods and storing drugs are some of the most common crimes she sees among women. Women are still the primary caregivers in Irish society, perhaps for older relatives as well as for children. Clarke feels they shoplift for survival rather than the thrill of stealing – to provide for their children or to feed a substance addiction.

Devastating effect on families

O’Connor explained some of the difficulties of going to prison for women include telling their family, leaving their children and the details being in the media.

Clarke said many women would not want their children visiting them in prison – especially when they are in for such short sentences. The children could be told that their mother has gone abroad to work or for medical treatment. “It’s one thing a child visiting their father in prison but, even in today’s age, for a child to visit their mother in prison it’s different, society views it as different,” she said.

“I think maybe there’s a general consensus of if it’s not broke don’t fix it… but people on the ground know it’s broke, we know it doesn’t work,” said Clarke.

“We are just putting bandages on a gaping wound,” said Meyler. The services of CAP are varied and include helping people set goals to address factors such as drug use, or helping those that are dealing with the fallout from a prison sentence even if it was a long time ago.

“We have had service users who haven’t been in prison for 20 years, but can’t get a mortgage,” she said. “The stigma can follow you.”

Meyler said there had been communication difficulties between the different parts of the system, but that the Irish Prison Service and the Probation Service have been working together more closely and have joint strategies, so there have been big improvements.

The Joint Irish Prison Service and Probation Service Strategic Plan, 2013-2015 presented a strategy for how the two services should work together, with other statutory, community and voluntary sector partners, in an effort to provide more tailored women-centric interventions. According to their strategic plan, this approach is aimed at reducing ‘offending among women, improving opportunities for reintegration and providing more positive outcomes’.

Meyler added said that the Irish Prison Service is moving towards a more modern system and she feels that the judges need to follow suit.

“As younger barristers come through the system, if they are exposed to different alternatives and different ideas, they will bring those with them,” she said.

Costigan would like to see more alternatives to prison. “Giving them custodial sentences has such a wide impact for all the family members, not just the individual, but for so many people in their social network,” she said.

Costigan added that there might also be a need for public education. She explained that if the justice system is really about reformation, the public needs to know what that entails, what is best practice and how to apply it for the benefit of these women and of society.

“As a society, do we want to help change lives or just lock them up and ignore them?”

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About the author:

Gabija Gataveckaite, Rachel Halpin, Gillian Hogan, Carrie McMullan and Judy Williams

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