“Unless something is done, female prison leavers will be ill-equipped to deal with the triple discrimination against their gender, criminal record and lack of formal qualifications”by Sophie Campbell / June 30, 2020 / Leave a comment
Ask anyone if they believe men and women should receive a separate and unequal education, and most would say no. However, the equality of rights we so often take for granted is deliberately withheld from female prisoners, who often make up the most vulnerable members of our society, meaning a large gender gap exists in male and female prisoners’ access to education.
The female prison population, though it has more than doubled since 1993, hovers just under the 4,000 mark. Despite their low numbers, women in prison form a diverse group, representing various cultures and a broad range of educational achievements and socioeconomic statuses. Of the 2,169 newly arrived prisoners in England and Wales surveyed in 2014, 75 per cent of them owned or rented their home, while 53 per cent of the overall prison population reported having educational qualifications.
For all that, a perception exists of prisoners that assumes they all lack basic literacy skills or even the ability to “clean a toilet.” These ill-formed beliefs have often been repeated at the highest level, and it was no surprise that when Jean Corston was first commissioned by the Home Office to carry out a review of women in prison in 2006, the eponymous report played a part in forcing female prisoners into tired gender roles.
Following the deaths of six women in HMP Styal between 2002 and 2003, British prisons began to wake up to the realisation that women should not be treated “as add-ons to the male system.” Questions as to what a woman-centred approach to education and rehabilitation should look like were soon asked. However, prisons’ paternalist attitude towards female prisoners, that views most of them as prone to distress when set with ambitious educational targets, meant that systemic gender bias was wrapped up and presented under the guise of female empowerment when changes to the female prison curriculum were made.
In contrast to male prisoners, who are encouraged to pursue vocational courses like radio production, coding and graphics—courses that have the potential to lead to employment–the emphasis on life skills meant women were pushed to participate in artistic confidence-building exercises such as miming, clowning and dance, seemingly to the exclusion of everything else.
Fast forward 13 years and the situation has hardly changed. The education courses listed on the websites of the UK’s…