Regular readers of this blog (I’m told there are some…. thank you) will recognise the themes that appeal to me most when picking up stories from the press. As a geographer, anything to do with space and distance immediately leaps out, and today’s coverage in the UK press of intentions to imprison female inmates in England and Wales closer to their homes and families (part of a suite of policies which includes local resettlement prisons), is exactly one of those stories.
According to the BBC, Lord McNally, the coalition government Justice Minister, has said that female prisoners in England and Wales will serve their sentences nearer to where they live in a bid to cut reoffending: “When a female offender walks out of the prison gates, I want to make sure she never returns,” he said. “Keeping female prisoners as close as possible to their homes, and importantly their children, is vital if we are to help them break the pernicious cycle of re-offending. And providing at least a year of support in the community – alongside the means to find employment on release – will give them the best possible chance to live productive, law abiding lives”. The Ministry of Justice’s intention that female inmates will maintain family relationships and improve their job prospects before leaving jail is laudable, but was immediately critiqued by the opposition Labour party, with Sadiq Khan claiming that “With only a small number of scattered women’s prisons, the concept of local resettlement is almost meaningless”.
The issue of distance and punishment has been a recurring theme in my own work. Although I looked at this initially in relation to women in prison in the Russian Federation (with colleagues – details here), a context in which the distances from home at which some women can be incarcerated are staggering – it’s clear from the UK example that distance really matters, regardless of scale. In Russia, the small number of colonies for women, and the fact that women with infants can, theoretically for their own benefit, be sent to distant prison colonies that have ‘mother and baby’ facilities for them to spend time together, means that distance is a very significant factor in the production of the carceral experience. Through a series of papers on Russia’s carceral geography and its experience, my colleagues and I have thought about the ways in which distance manifests itself in the dislocation and isolation of imprisonment for women. However, what’s clear from today’s new story in the UK is that, even though the actual distances which separate women from their children and families in the UK are significantly smaller than they are in Russia, the same problems are experienced.