The Independent have published a big new special report today, and are slice-and-dicing it across the week. It’s about how more women are going to prison and how terrible that is. Today’s piece is about women in mother-and-baby units in prisons. It’s also expanded on in an opinion piece, which spells out what we’ll be seeing in the Indy over the next week.
The focus of the investigation is mothers going to prison, and being separated from their children. This is a Very Bad Thing, apparently: according to a vaguely-written headline, either the women or their children are the “hidden victims” this system. All three of the pieces linked smack of benevolent sexism, the societal reverence for this special female magic which in fact doesn’t exist and is massively sexist. Benevolent sexism basically needs to die in a suicide pact with its brother, hostile sexism (for a full overview of benevolent and hostile sexism, read this).
The benevolent sexism in their line of agrument is exemplified in the introductory article:
Britain has the highest rate of female imprisonment in the European Union, with 10,181 women put behind bars last year alone. That statistic has raised fears that the criminal justice system is creating a lost generation of children raised without mothers.
Children need mothers. Mother knows best. MOTHER MOTHER MOTHER. It’s like the article was co-written by Freud and Stephen Moffat. Women have special mum-magic, and the consequences will be Very Bad otherwise.
So what does this mum-magic prevent?
Nearly two-thirds of boys with a parent in jail will go on to commit some kind of crime themselves, research shows, and children with a parent behind bars are three times more likely than their peers to engage in anti-social behaviour. Their chances of suffering mental health problems also increase threefold.
Now, look very carefully at the first sentence there. Notice it says “parent” not “mother”. That’s because it’s referring to parents, not mothers. And that’s because it’s closeness to parents, not mothers, that’s important. Not that this deters the nameless author of the opinion piece, who gives us a sneak preview of the latter instalments of the report with this gem:
Over the coming week, we will lay bare the shocking truth about what happens in the majority of cases where mothers and their children are separated. We will consider the impact on the women themselves, both in and out of custody. We will look at the lives of those who are left holding prisoners’ babies, or bringing up their distressed children and disturbed teenagers – a burden which mainly falls on grandmothers and other female relatives. Indeed, it is a staggering indictment of modern fatherhood that only 9 per cent of such children are looked after by their fathers.
Replace “modern fatherhood” with “patriarchy”, and the author has a point. Otherwise, it’s just yet more benevolent sexism. Women are caring, and waft around farting rainbows.
I can see the future articles laid out before me. It will be a return to the earliest incarnations of the work of John Bowlby, who authored a monograph on “maternal deprivation” and how it led to delinquency, decreased intelligence, aggression and affectionless psychopathy in children. However, later Bowlby clarified his work pertained to general upheaval of a close parental attachment and wasn’t specific to mothers. The Indy don’t seem to have read this bit.
What amplifies the benevolent sexism of the Indy’s new report is what isn’t mentioned at all: that the vast majority of people in prison are men. And that the vast majority of people in prison are men precisely because of the underlying set of attitudes driving the Indy’s report: women are too nice and good to commit crimes, and if they’ve reproduced they’re probably fucking saints. It’s dated, and it’s sexist as hell.
I can think of ulterior motives for publishing this piece. The first is a desire for a return to “traditional family values”, an idea which basically needs to fuck off as it places the mother as caregiver, the father as breadwinner, and keeps everyone neatly in their patriarchal places. The second is to attempt a broader critique of how more people are going to prison. Now, this is a very important point indeed. As an anarchist, you might have guessed I’d not be so keen on the concept of prison, and, indeed, I find the whole notion of retributive justice grotesque and the concept of the state locking people up fairly abhorrent (in fact, the concept of crime is somewhat baffling to me). For those of a more liberal persuasion, you can argue against prison on the grounds of how expensive prison is compared to rehabilitation. Prison’s basically bad. If the Indy are trying to push this line, they’re going entirely the wrong way about it, given they just focus on one very small group of prisoners and drag in a lot of sexism.
Ultimately, what we need is two things: a radical rethink of our justice system with a move to not putting people in prison, and a radical rethink of how families are constructed and how we view women in general. That will be the thing that stops fucking up future generations, and demand nothing less.