Ross Clark

The sexism in our prisons the government is happy to ignore

The sexism in our prisons the government is happy to ignore
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There is one form of female under-representation which no-one seems concerned about – the fact that a mere 4.5 per cent of the prison population is made up of women. No one says we must rebalance that so as to make it 50-50 by 2025, or whatever. It just seems to be accepted that men are more prone to greed, lust and violence, and that greater numbers of them deserve to be behind bars. I guess that is right. If we have 20 times more male offenders than female ones, then I want the prison population to reflect that.

But why the need to readjust the criminal justice system in order to try to exaggerate the gender imbalance in our jails even further? This morning, Justice Secretary David Gauke was on the Today programme explaining why the government had decided to abandon plans to build extra women’s prisons and would instead built ‘residential centres’ where female offenders would serve community sentences. “There are particular issues with female prisoners,” said Gauke, explaining that many of them had been driven to offending after being abused by partners and the like.

Yet at the same time the government is preparing for a 10,000 rise in the prison population. Two new jails will be built, prisons minister Rory Stewart said yesterday, as tougher sentences for things like causing death by dangerous driving increased the length of time which offenders served behind bars.

Add the two things together and it is a pretty blatant case of discrimination. If you are going to pursue a more liberal justice policy, which – as Tony Blair would put it – is tougher on the causes of crime than on crime itself – then surely it should apply to male offenders as well as female ones. Maybe it is true that there are women prisoners who were driven to commit crime after being used and abused, but then isn’t that also true of some male prisoners? There are plenty of boys who were brought up by drug addicts and criminals, who were starved of affection, beaten and sexually abused – and then went on to commit crimes. Don’t they qualify for a bit of understanding too?

Alternatively, if you want to pursue a criminal justice policy which focuses more on protecting the public than on addressing the psychological issues of the offender, then surely that ought to apply equally to female criminals. To assert, as Gauke does, that women deserve special treatment purely on the basis that they are women is exactly the kind of sexism which the government – in any other context – spends so much time and effort trying to eliminate.

The government seems to have absorbed an unwritten rule of feminism: that it is perfectly acceptable to assert intellectual and emotional differences between men and women when it works in favour of the latter, but not when it works against them. Make out that men are more disposed towards aggression and violence and thus deserving of harsher treatment through the criminal justice system and you are enlightened; suggest, on the other hand, that female under-representation in top jobs might possibly be partly down to differences in drive and ambition, and you are a sexist pig.

Most men are not, of course, fraudsters or violent thugs. Some of us might even be said to be really quite tolerant. But somehow I don’t think men are going to put up indefinitely with the attitude that seems to have afflicted the political classes, Conservative ministers included, of simultaneously denouncing sexism and embracing it.