Women's share of the prison population is creeping up.
Crime is mostly men's work, and prison a man's world. But in Britain's heaving jails, the fastest-growing group is women. Male inmates have almost doubled in the past 30 years and females have nearly quadrupled. In 1970 one in 40 prisoners was a woman. Today it is one in 18.
Before the steep rise came a long fall (see chart). Bar a couple of spikes during wartime (when male potential offenders were away fighting), women's share of jail places shrank steadily. That is partly because they were being locked up elsewhere. New reformatories for alcoholics and asylums for the feeble-minded catered mainly for women, “seeking to cure them, or where this proved impossible, to restrain them for so long as they were able to bear children,” according to Lucia Zedner of Oxford University. Psychiatrists began diagnosing women as mad, not bad, and female inmates became guinea pigs for new treatments outside the penal system.
How different are today's inmates? “Women are imprisoned for much the same reasons as they were in the time of Elizabeth Fry,” a 19th-century prison reformer still pictured on £5 notes, says Juliet Lyon of the Prison Reform Trust, a campaigning organisation. Theft is still the most common offence, accounting for a third of the women put away. Addiction is still rife: 30% are inside for drugs offences, and 58% are daily users. Debt and poverty continue to inspire crime.
So do mental problems: eight out of ten female prisoners suffer from them, and they are twice as likely as men to be treated on arrival. But just as changes in mental-health policy helped to drive down the number of female prisoners at the start of the 20th century, they may now be driving them up. Places in mental hospitals have fallen from 150,000 in 1950 to 30,000 now, as more patients are treated in the community. A side-effect is that those who go off the rails may go to jail instead of hospital.
Female offenders, who tend to have committed only minor offences, have been hit again by a crackdown on nuisance crime. In 1992 those convicted of theft had a 2% chance of being sentenced to custody in the lower courts. By 2000 the odds were 14%. Tough regimes tend to go hand in hand with higher proportions of female inmates: in America, which imposes long sentences for mild crimes, women make up 9.1% of prisoners; in Germany, which has one-eighth as many prisoners per person, they make up 5.3%. France's jails, with fewer prisoners still, are only 3.6% female.
A country's treatment of women therefore reflects its approach to offenders generally. But women raise extra concerns. Two-thirds of British women prisoners have children under 18, and 95% of them have to move house while their mother is banged up. And there are subtler cruelties: women are visited less than men, since their jails are fewer and farther between and their partners less conscientious. A third try to kill themselves each year.
Their misery has swayed a sceptical public. Three-quarters believe that mothers should be spared jail unless they are violent, according to SmartJustice, a charity. Last year an official review suggested replacing women's jails with small, local units. The government endorsed much of the plan in December and is due to report back with firmer plans by April. The slow pace is maddening, says Ms Lyon, but the direction is right, if funding materialises.
That still leaves the remaining 94% of prisoners—men—whose swelling ranks the government plans to hold in huge new “titan” jails. Many, like most women, are petty criminals spending just weeks inside and learning little. A century ago women were the guinea pigs for new thinking in penal reform. Could it happen again?