Can prisons serve to empower women?

Should those who fight for the end of violence against women expect anything from the prison system? Not necessarily.

Every year in France, 213,000 women experience physical and/or sexual assault at the hands of their partners or former partners, resulting in the deaths of one hundred and forty-six1 in 2019. Are tougher criminal penalties the solution to ending violence against women? Gwenola Ricordeau suggests a different approach. Currently an assistant professor of criminal justice at California State University, Chico, this French researcher focuses her work primarily on relatives of prisoners and gender and sexuality in prison.

Gwenola Ricordeau is a feminist and penal abolitionist as well as the author of Pour elles toutes. Femmes contre la prison (For them all: women against prison; Lux, 2019). Prison Insider asked her three questions.

  1. “In 2019, the number of femicides increased by 21%,” declared French newspaper Le Monde on 18 August 2020, visited 26 October 2020 

Rather, I would say that prisons, and more broadly, the criminal justice system, cannot be used to empower women.

The increased use of the criminal justice system is not the only available option.

I believe more in the power of autonomy that is formed collectively than in the protection we could expect from the state – because what is given can always be taken away.

For them all

Women against prison

Women represent between 2 and 10% of the global prison population, but they are everywhere. In front of doors, in visiting rooms, on the pavement, on the other end of letters and warrants. Gwenola Ricordeau says she listens to all of them, understands them all, loves them all.

They are also in police stations, if they file complaints. What can they hope for from prisons? Prison destroys: this is not news. But can it mend? For the author, no. She does not want prison for anyone and guides the reader carefully through her reasoning. We walk the razor edge, but the journey is worthwhile. We cross paths with abolitionists Willem de Haan and Thomas Mathiesen and the Quaker Ruth Morris. Further on, we see the connections made by Michelle Alexander and Angela Davis between contemporary prisons and slavery. Then we meet the women who fight to promote other approaches (restorative justice, circle justice) and so many others who are forging new paths. Those on the outside often carry “more than half the sky”, and their mere presence fights against the inhospitable walls of prisons, which isolate and repel most people – most people, but not them.


Pour elles toutes, femmes contre la prison, Lux, 2019, 240 pp.