by Sarah Le Ny

If you ever read about incarceration in French, you have most certainly encountered the term, une double peine (a double sentence) when speaking about the intersection between being a prisoner and being part of a marginalized population. It is very often used when the question of women in jail is raised.

Last year, there was a week of awareness about prison organized in Sciences Po Le Havre by the NGO Genepi. I had the chance to discuss the question of incarcerated women with several Sciencespistes. It seemingly leds up to a great surprise. “How can it be a double pain since there are almost no women in penitentiary facilities? Why do you care so much about it?”


Geography And 

The fact that women represent a striking minority of the carceral population is not really a win, because it means penitentiary facilities are not at all adapted for them.


There is only one all-female prison in France (Rennes), and the few penitentiary facilities hosting women are very unequally distributed across metropolitan France (six in the north of France, one in the south). Therefore, the reality of isolation that all inmates suffer from is even more real for women, who can be jailed hundreds of kilometres away from their closed ones.


It is especially complex for their families to visit, as they have to spend a day or two in order to havre a one-hour talk, and do not benefit from any help to cover the costs of a visit (tripl, hotel).Moreover, although there are more spots for women in prison than there are incarcerated women, the allocation of spots does not match the reality of the distribution of women among the different sorts of penitentiary institutions.


Consequently, a lot of incarcerated women still experience overcrowding, especially in women’s departments of remand centres. Another consequence of that architectural and geographical isolation is that women benefit from fewer activities and services than men. Indeed, when they are incarcerated in a department of a men’s facility, activities are conceived for men. As women are not allowed to cross their male counterparts’ path, they have a very difficult access to activities, jobs or medical services.


That question makes complete sense. Indeed, people languishing in jail are not something we think about every morning when we wake-up. It is, for some, something they never have the occasion to discuss. Hence, the only critique that people who are vaguely informed usually make on penitentiary facilities is that “it is overcrowded”, and since women represent only 3.62% of the carceral population in France, we do not necessarily know how dire the situation of women in jail is. With this article, I explore a few examples that might open discussions on that genuinely obscure issue.

Incarceration tends to be an representation of all of society’s failures. Every discrimination exists on the outside is exponentially exaggerated on the inside, on one hand by the no-brainer that people who live precariously or marginally have a higher risk of being incarcerated, and by their exploitation by the penitentiary administrations, its architecture, by the prison guards and inmates themselves.

Medical Care And Motherhood

One of the most pressing issues female inmates face is the access to medical services. They have very little access to medical care, especially gynaecological care. Getting access to menstrual hygiene supplies can be tricky: either they have money on their canteen account and they can buy some (within a very narrow choice and sometimes to a higher price than on the outside), or they do not and have to hope that their hygiene kit will be renewed on time with enough products (which are often enormous non-sticky pads). For women who struggle to get a job (which are underpaid jobs, generally representing 20 to 45% of the minimum wage), the strive to access menstrual products potentially endangers their health as they are forced to rely on cloth, toilet paper or even plastic bottles as cups. During emergencies, they depend on the good will of prison guards.

Concerning gynaecological health, I must mention the hardship of pregnancy in jail. Although the 60 women who give birth in prison each year are supposed to have a consistent obstetrical follow-up, soon-to-be mothers can be in great distress. Indeed, that follow-up is excessively hard to organize due to the lack of on-site specialists, which means it is often reduced. Emergencies are also very badly handled for the same practical reasons and often results in late transfer and treatment. Lastly, although it is antiquated, women still very often have to receive obstetrical care or delivery under the eyes of a guard, and are sometimes even handcuffed.

The struggle does not stop after childbirth. Due to the repartition of the 76 nursery spots, women often must be transferred to a new penitentiary facility once they have a baby. Those nursery cells are supposed to be at least 15m2 (which is not always respected). Babies can stay with their mothers until they are 18 months old. Afterwards they are placed in foster families. They often have to deal with the consequences of confined early childhood such as difficulties to adapt to light, obstacles, little access to developmental game.

Moreover, here are very strong incentives for women to be perfectly in line with what the patriarchal society expects of them. Motherhood is one of the societal requirements women must greatly fulfill, and once they are incarcerated, marked as deviant, they start suffering the burden of being – often unjustifiably - labelled as “bad mothers”

A Sociological Phenomenon Of Double Deviance

The problem of enhanced marginalisation in prisons implies a double-sentence for women inmates. It does not derive only from the administration itself but also from how women are perceived by society and how their lives are determine. Incarcerated women tend to be more frequently and more rapidly abandoned by their families and left in a state of isolation. It is as if they had committed a crime twice: once because they stole something, smuggled drugs or any other offense, and once again because they did so as a women. There is a very strong sociological background behind women’s incarcerations.


For the same crimes, women tend to be less incarcerated than men because society is unable to consider women’s deviance. We expect women to be barrier-keepers, not barrier-crossers. We are used to looking at women as brakes to men’s violence and deviance, as family-holders and “good mothers”. They pay a double price for their “double deviance”: they are deviant because they violated formal laws and the societal expectations of women. They must handle a lot more internal and external guilt than men. Consequently, by violating patriarchal ideals, women tend to request for less sentence adjustments (for which they receive very little support) because they internalized the idea of guilt, thereby making everything harder as they have to suffer the consequences of incarceration as well as re-adapt to life upon release (finding a job, an accommodation...).

Gwenola Ricordeau sums it up by highlighting that “The isolation touching incarcerated women is not only explained by the geographical remoteness: women are less supported by men. In jail, when they are confronted to other life’s challenges – as a severe disease -, women benefit from less solidarities than men. Nevertheless, they are the ones who, on the contrary, support men in challengers, such as jail, that they go through”.

A necessary debateI strongly believe that no action justifies the ghastly experience that is incarceration. When the imprisonment frenzy meets the burden of patriarchal determinism, women are left in great distress, which is shadowed away. I hope my engagement with the subject will help generate a greater debate and discussion of the subject, about both incarceration and the onus it can become to be a woman as soon as you step outside of the box.