Prison Reporting and a Bald Double Standard

Even the way prison statistics are reported betrays ugly and outdated gender stereotypes.

This article originally appeared at Heteronormative Patriarchy For Men.

Last week the Independent ran a major series of articles on the issue of incarcerated mothers, and the impact of imprisonment on their children.

I’ve always been a strong advocate of prison reform. The old saw about prison being an expensive way of making bad people worse may be a cliché, but is no less true for that. Ludicrous numbers of defendants are remanded in custody pre-trial. The social harm caused by issuing short sentences to non-violent offenders vastly outweighs any deterrent or rehabilitatory benefits,while research into the personal characteristics of prisoners confirms that, for many inmates, prison is not so much a place for punishment and correction as one checkpoint on a circuit of that begins with childhood neglect, abuse and institutionalisation and continues through mental health problems, addiction, homelessness and exploitation. Mass imprisonment is less about individual failings than a succession of social policy calamities.

So I do not oppose efforts made in the wake of the Corston Report, to overhaul policies relating to the imprisonment of women. What I ask is that the same logic be applied to the imprisonment of men. I’m very grateful that the Independent blog editors gave me the platform to make that point at length yesterday.

In that article I point out that in fact only 20% of female prisoners are resident mothers, while the many known harms caused to children of prisoners are taken from research which, overwhelmingly, relates to imprisoned fathers, not mothers. The assumption that ‘woman’ equals ‘mother’ equals ‘loving, responsible carer’ is not only inaccurate but sexist, while the implicit corollary, that male prisoners are less deserving of sympathy and compassion, is little better.

There was one other point from the Independent series which I let pass in my response piece, but frankly it has been bugging me, so I’m going to cover it here. In the piece about grandmothers left (literally) holding the baby, Paul Vallely and Sarah Cassidy note that:

“When a father is jailed, it is likely that his children will remain in their own home with their mother. But only 9 per cent of children whose mothers are jailed are cared for by their fathers. That is, in part, a reflection of the widespread dereliction of duty among many fathers.”

In the Indy leader that launched the series, the anonymous leader writer went further:

“Indeed, it is a staggering indictment of modern fatherhood that only 9 per cent of such children are looked after by their fathers.”

A staggering indictment of modern fatherhood. Really, Independent?

We know from the same article that a third of those fathers are themselves in prison. The survey which produced that statistic didn’t explain the circumstances of the other two thirds. The partners of female prisoners will very commonly share their chaotic lifestyles and troubled personal histories, so without estimating numbers, I’d bet my last penny that the various situations will include:

  • Fathers who were never known or identified
  • Fathers who are homeless, in psychiatric institutions or dead.
  • Fathers who have been excluded by the mother’s choice to end the relationship.
  • Fathers who are violent or abusive and need to be kept away from mother and children alike.
  • Fathers who have abandoned their responsibilities and ‘done a runner.’

In addition, and this is a statistical equation you may need to wrap your head around, we know that mothers in a stable relationship are regularly spared custody or longer sentences by magistrates as they are considered the ‘primary carer’ of their children – even if a father is at hand. Without this mitigation, the number of women in prison would be much higher, and so too would the proportion for whom a father takes over responsibility for the kids. (To be clear, I don’t disagree with this policy, on the contrary I’d extend it to fathers and make the policy gender neutral. But it does help to explain the 9 per cent figure)

Yes, of course some of the partners of women in prison are undoubtedly irresponsible or a danger to their children. However those men are no more typical of “modern fatherhood” than the female prisoners are of “modern motherhood.” The fathers, like the mothers, are likely to be living lives that are twisted by addiction, mental health problems, tragic childhoods and all the rest. Can you imagine an Independent editorial saying: “it is a staggering indictment of modern motherhood that half the women in prison are drug addicts and two-thirds do not live with and care for their own children”? It would be crazy, suggesting that such women are somehow typical of the general population. The same assertion can be made about fathers without so much as a blink. Whatever the 9 per cent figure might tell us about prison populations, it tells us literally nothing about “modern fatherhood” far less being a “staggering indictment.”

This type of low-level casual misandry is tiresome and toxic. I believe it is also emblematic of the fundamental logical and political flaws in the debate around women’s prisons. The unthinking assumption is that a woman’s lack of responsibility, anti-social behaviour or criminality invariably means she’s a victim of social circumstance, whereas a man’s lack of responsibility, anti-social behaviour or criminality is a product of his personal weakness or venality. Neither assumption gives an accurate or satisfactory picture of the depressingly messy lives of prison populations, whatever the gender.



About Ally Fogg

Ally Fogg is a writer, journalist and community media organizer based in Manchester, UK. He writes extensively on male gender issues in The Guardian and elsewhere. His own gender blog is Heteronormative Patriarchy for Men.


  1. Women receive only half as long sentences as men for exactly the same crimes. It is one of the grossest forms of discrimination there is. It is female privillige to receive 50% sentencing discount. The discrimination in sentencing for being a man is a lot stronger than for being black. The most privlleged are, as always, white women:

  2. Thanks for this article. Very on point.

    Many apolitical people and feminists want to dismiss the idea of male oppression, but no matter how they bury their head in the sand it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist.

    Studies show there is a male disadvantage in sentencing nearly as bad as the black disadvantage in sentencing. Additionally, halfway houses, work ferloughs, non-custodial sentences (like mental health sentences) are almost exclusively reserved for women.

    When a man does something wrong, he’s evil. When a woman does something wrong, the excuses grow wings and fly everywhere.

    • I strongly suspect that this is linked to agency denial of women.

      The same force that causes them to not be promoted or paid equally, also causes them not to be incarcerated. We deny women’s agency so strongly that if she does something good, there is no need to reward, and if she does something bad, no need to punish. Fundamentally what she does does not matter.

      I would like to see some agency denial of male prisoners, a recognition that many are victims of child abuse, rape, addiction and that they will benefit from treatment, not incarceration.

  3. wellokaythen says:

    In the category of “father may be dead,” let’s also bear in mind the real possibility that if she’s in prison for murder or manslaughter she’s there for killing the father.

  4. Life Lessons says:

    Amen and thank you for writing this.

  5. wellokaythen says:

    “When a father is jailed, it is likely that his children will remain in their own home with their mother.”

    Subtle wording here, but the language seems to assume it’s a nuclear family living together in a home, and the father goes off to jail like other dads go off to work, leaving the mother and child in “their home.” It assumes that a dad going to jail is leaving a situation where he was an equal parent and is leaving his children. In many cases that is no doubt true. But, a mother may not know or may not say who the father is. Don’t assume that the father is in all cases knowingly leaving a child behind.

    There’s another possibility you left out, which actually helps the original article: the father may be the father of children from multiple mothers, in which case it’s hard for him to be the primary caregiver for all of his kids.

    A man sent to prison is no more abandoning his children than a woman sent to prison, and no less. That I can agree with.

    • SpaceyWildstation says:

      Mr. Fogg, I just got out of prison after serving 7 years 11 months and 10 days. With regards to how I felt about “going off to prison leaving my family,” Here’s is an excerpt from my story, “Calendars by Space.”
      Remember about a month ago when you thought I was downstairs in the basement getting high and when I came up to get a chair, you followed me back down?
      As usual you were all hard in the face. That is, until you couldn’t figure out why your husband was standing on the chair. Now boy did the look on your face change when your eyes rested on the belt cinched around my neck. Your braided leather belt being nailed to the floor joists. One of the few times you were truly adorable. You weren’t hiding behind anger for once. For once you weren’t gritting on life in general, all torn up in the face over the littlest thing.
      Now, when I dropped that hammer and that chair groaned against the basement floor, you could have split into two, with one half running to catch me and the other half running upstairs to call emergency. You liked to have thrown me your hands.
      “TRACY!” you screamed
      After years of no support, no understanding of what it’s like singing, dancing and showing teeth and laughing at embarrassing jokes on a daily minstrel show called life in America this is what it comes to.
      Four letter word.
      God is merciful and the belt broke at the nail. I will not repeat what I yelled when I hit the cement with a length of leather belt hanging from my neck like some sick necktie.
      Trace didn’t say any of that. What he did say was:
      “Did you tell him I was on crack?”
      “I didn’t know what to tell him.”
      “Don’t trip. They’ll find out.”
      “Tracy I’m scared. He says it doesn’t look good.”
      Yeah it does. I’m free, Trace did not say.
      “It’s going to be alright Selina,” Trace said, “Jesus has a plan for my life and right now I feel closer to that plan than I ever have.”
      Selina’s voice went down to her lowest octave.
      “A what. That’s real good Trace. Sounds just like some cluck in jail on some Jesus hype. This is not about you for once. What am I going to do with two kids? You left us Tracy! And I’m not going to start yelling at work so goodbye.” The phone went Click, buzz; Trace hung up.

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