Dora's story: more evidence that the poor don't make mistakes, they commit crimes

As the case of "Dora", a young woman who either committed a minor crime or made a mistake, shows - people from deprived backgrounds have an entirely different experience of custody than people like Chris Huhne or Vicky Pryce.

Two events over the past few days have inspired me to write this blog. First, the Huhne/Pryce trial: as Alex Andreou mentioned in his recent article we all know what the received wisdom is: “The poor commit crimes; the rich just make mistakes.” And secondly, International Women’s Day. One of the less-reported stories that day involved an official complaint by the Howard League for Penal Reform, made to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women. It involved a girl called Dora (name changed).

Back in 2007, Dora committed a crime: very definitely, a crime. At the time, she was 14 years old. She was with three males and a second girl, and was present when a victim was assaulted and their mobile phone was taken. She pleaded guilty to the theft on a joint enterprise basis.

She was handed a two-year community sentence and was right at the end of it when she either committed another crime, or made a mistake - it rather depends how you see things. She missed three appointments with her Youth Offending Team. She later explained that she’d failed to do so because she felt the male youth offending team worker had behaved inappropriately towards her and made her feel uncomfortable.

But like Huhne and Pryce, Dora either committed a minor crime, or made a mistake. And like Huhne and Pryce, she was handed a custodial sentence (six months in a detention centre). And like Huhne and Pryce, there were some mitigating factors in her defence.  But first, I should quote Alex’s piece:

Explicit in these interviews [with middle class ex-lags], the idea that prison is somehow easy-peasy for those who have thus far had a brutally traumatised existence. This actually makes sense to these white, highly educated, middle class reporters, with six-figure salaries. If your life has been utterly shitty from birth, losing your liberty is not only unremarkable, but par for the course.

And these are the mitigating factors in Dora’s case, the kind for which we somehow seem to have rather less sympathy as a nation. Dora had been forced to leave her family home at the age of 12 by her father. Her mother was a drug addict, with whom she lost contact. Since then, she’d moved from one foster or children’s home to the next. Towards the end of her supervision order she’d moved out of a children’s home into semi-independent accommodation with support - her key worker would later report she had made great progress. This worker’s report also noted Dora’s significant history of self-harm and  suicidal ideation (indeed, she had previously been hospitalised for three days following a significant suicide attempt). And finally, and most importantly: she was now pregnant.

Dora was 16. As a result of being incarcerated, she lost her accommodation and a place on a course. Youth prisons are not nice places for pregnant girls. She was bullied. One boy kept telling her he would kick the baby out of her. She was taken to medical appointments in handcuffs and strip searched on return. The father of Dora’s child, with whom she is on good terms, couldn’t attend scans and medical appointments. She missed ante-natal classes, which she’d attended prior to the sentence (important, as she’d not engaged with full-time education).

A reminder: Britain has the highest child custody rate in Western Europe. Another reminder: The UN convention on Human Rights says that  “in all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.” It also says custody should be a last resort. Another reminder: the 2003 Criminal Justice Act states: “The court must not pass a custodial sentence unless it is of the opinion that the offence…was so serious that neither a fine alone nor a community sentence can be justified…” A final reminder: the Corston Report into women in custody highlighted that a disproportionate number of women are given custodial sentences for breaches of community orders. The UK Government has yet to do anything about this.

“I’ve had to deal with a number of cases involving pregnant children,” says Laura Janes, one of the solicitors who has handled Dora’s case. “And they make my blood curdle.” She describes some of them to me: a mentally ill teenager who was told by prison staff that something was terribly wrong with her baby but for weeks was given no indication of when she’d receive treatment (despite repeated requests from Janes). A pregnant girl in jail for breaching a community sentence, like Dora, being told her baby had a less-than 10 per cent chance of survival but that she wouldn’t be granted compassionate release and spent Christmas alone in prison. A young woman who’d been exploited by a cannabis-growing gang being separated from her child despite independent assessments showing she was a good mother.

“The fact these children are pregnant,” says Janes, “is almost an aggravating factor: ‘Oh, you irresponsible girl, you’ve got pregnant on top of it.’ We have deep-running prejudices in the justice system which skew our capacity to make judgements about women. Take, for instance, the issue of female sex offenders. No one wants to talk about them - there’s no accredited course or any other resources at all to reform their behaviour. But who are these women really? They’re usually the most damaged women in custody.”

And of course, they’re criminals, and they’re usually from extremely deprived backgrounds. Because the poor don’t generally make mistakes: they commit crimes.

19-year-old inmate James looks out of the window of the Young Offenders Institution attached to Norwich Prison. Photograph: Getty Images

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

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Are there “tens of thousands” who still don't have their Labour leadership ballot paper?

Word has it that swathes of eligible voters have yet to receive their ballot papers, suggesting there is still all to play for in the Labour leadership contest. But is it true?

Is there still all to play for in the Labour leadership contest?

Some party insiders believe there is, having heard whispers following the bank holiday weekend that “tens of thousands” of eligible voters have yet to receive their ballot papers.

The voting process closes next Thursday (10 September), and today (1 September) is the day the Labour party suggests you get in touch if you haven’t yet been given a chance to vote.

The impression here is that most people allowed to vote – members, registered supporters, and affiliated supporters – should have received their voting code over email, or their election pack in the post, by now, and that it begins to boil down to individual administrative problems if they’ve received neither by this point.

But many are still reporting that they haven’t yet been given a chance to vote. Even Shabana Mahmood MP, shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, still hasn’t received her voting pack, as she writes on the Staggers, warning us not to assume Jeremy Corbyn will win. What’s more, Mahmood and her team have heard anecdotally that there are still “tens of thousands” who have been approved to vote who have yet to receive their ballot papers.

It’s important to remember that Mahmood is an Yvette Cooper supporter, and is using this figure in her piece to argue that there is still all to play for in the leadership race. Also, “tens of thousands” is sufficiently vague; it doesn’t give away whether or not these mystery ballot-lacking voters would really make a difference in an election in which around half a million will be voting.

But there are others in the party who have heard similar figures.

“I know people who haven’t received [their voting details] either,” one Labour political adviser tells me. “That figure [tens of thousands] is probably accurate, but the party is being far from open with us.”

“That’s the number we’ve heard, as of Friday, the bank holiday, and today – apparently it is still that many,” says another.

A source at Labour HQ does not deny that such a high number of people are still unable to vote. They say it’s difficult to work out the exact figures of ballot papers that have yet to be sent out, but reveal that they are still likely to be, “going out in batches over the next two weeks”.

A Labour press office spokesperson confirms that papers are still being sent out, but does not give me a figure: “The process of sending out ballot papers is still under way, and people can vote online right up to the deadline on September 10th.”

The Electoral Reform Services is the independent body administrating the ballot for Labour. They are more sceptical about the “tens of thousands” figure. “Tens of thousands? Nah,” an official at the organisation tells me.

“The vast majority will have been sent an email allowing them to vote, or a pack in one or two days after that. The idea that as many as tens of thousands haven’t seems a little bit strange,” they add. “There were some last-minute membership applications, and there might be a few late postal votes, or a few individuals late to register. [But] everybody should have definitely been sent an email.”

Considering Labour’s own information to voters suggests today (1 September) is the day to begin worrying if you haven’t received your ballot yet, and the body in charge of sending out the ballots denies the figure, these “tens of thousands” are likely to be wishful thinking on the part of those in the party dreading a Corbyn victory.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.