Last week, the justice minister Simon Hughes announced the rollout of a new scheme to help stop women ending up in custody. The women’s prison population currently stands at 3,811, having more than doubled between 1995 and 2010. But, according to Hughes, ‘There are so many women who ought not to be in prison. About half ought not to be there at all.’
Hughes’ call for reform was sparked by a new report about women in prison from the Prison Reform Trust, Transforming Lives, which advocates for a gender specific approach to offending because ‘equal treatment does not mean the same treatment for everyone’. A negative social attitude towards female offenders continues to be a barrier to progress, says the report. In 2012 just 8% of women gained successful employment after leaving prison in comparison to 27% of men. Successive governments’ ‘tough on crime’ policies have encouraged harsher sentencing without any thought to the devastating impact prison has on women.
Calls for reform of the women’s justice system are nothing new. Charities supporting female offenders have been arguing for decades that prison affects women differently and disproportionately to men. In 2007, Baroness Corston concluded in her damning report on women in the criminal justice system that she was ‘dismayed at the high prevalence of institutional misunderstanding within the criminal justice system of the things that matter to women and at the shocking level of unmet need.’
The Corston report found that many women in prison could be described as victims as well as offenders, a finding echoed by the latest research from the Prison Reform Trust. One in three women in prison have suffered sexual abuse compared with just under one in 10 men. Currently, up to 74% of women in prison report having experienced violence at home compared with a quarter of men. According to a 2013 report from the Fawcett Society, even before the current austerity measures were introduced, one in four local authorities in Britain had no specialist support services for domestic violence victims. But further cuts to funding mean the vicious cycle of victimisation and crime is worsening.
Women are more likely than men to be homeless when released from prison. According to the latest research from the Prison Reform Trust, 57% of women in prison were council tenants, or living in housing association accommodation, which many lost as a result of their imprisonment.
They are also more likely to be held in custody further away from home because of the dispersal of women’s prisons across the country, making it near impossible for women to maintain good links with housing providers. In September 2013 the Secretary of State for Justice, Chris Grayling, acknowledged the need for women prisoners to be close to home. But just a month later his department announced that two open prisons for women and the mother and baby unit at HMP Holloway would close.
According to a 2011 Prison Reform Trust report, an estimated 17,700 children are separated from their mothers by imprisonment and of these children, only 5% are able to remain in their own home (here). Separating children from their mothers by sending women to prison has an inevitable detrimental impact on the children’s welfare. Children with a parent in prison are three times more likely to have mental health problems or to engage in anti-social behaviour. Evidence suggests that an inter-generational cycle of crime is created when mothers are sent to prison, with nearly two-thirds of boys who have a parent in prison going on to commit crime.
A greater threat to themselves than to society
Whilst prison is necessary in certain circumstances for public protection the majority of women in prison pose no threat to society: 81% are jailed for non-violent offences.
Some one third of all female offenders are serving sentences for theft and handling stolen goods, with two-thirds of women serving short custodial sentences of six months or less. Female prisoners in fact pose a greater threat to themselves than they do to society: women account for 43% of all incidents of self-harm in prison, despite representing just 5% of the total prison population. These facts overwhelmingly suggest that the prison environment is not suitable for women (more here).
Critics suggest that short custodial sentences for women should be abolished. But in a recent speech on conservative justice policy, Grayling said that ‘those who argue that the solution is no short sentences are, in my view, completely wrong… Community sentences have an important role to play, but they are not the solution to the challenge of short-term prison sentences’.
It is unclear, however, what substantiates such a claim, given that many women serving short sentences go on to reoffend. 54% of women leaving prison are reconvicted within one year; for those serving less than 12 months this increases to 64%. However, according to statistics from Anawim, a women’s support centre which helps women and their children by offering alternatives to custody, only 3% of women using its support services went on to commit further offences and 7% breached their community order. So why is it that we continue to hand women short custodial sentences when they clearly aren’t working?
Vicky Pryce, who spent nine weeks in prison for accepting points on her driving licence for her husband, reports in her book Prisonomics that the average cost of a six month prison place for a woman is £28,000, and that doesn’t include expenses on healthcare or education. This can be compared to the approximate cost of providing holistic support through a women’s community centre, which, according to the Ministry of Justice, is in the region of £1,360 per year.
Evidence strongly suggests that women’s community centres are key to reducing the reoffending rates of female prisoners, as they address the complex issues which cause women to offend. The Ministry of Justice began funding women’s centres in 2009. But recent cuts mean that many women’s centres have lost funding or have been given reduced funding, often at short notice, making financial planning near impossible. According to Jackie Russell of Women’s Breakout, a group offering alternatives to female imprisonment, many charities fear imminent closure as they struggle to survive on the lack of funding and the increasing number of women being sent to prison. Sending women to prison for short periods of time is excessively expensive and does not stop offending behaviour. In light of Grayling’s determination to cut spending on the criminal justice system, it is hard to see why cheaper and more effective alternatives to custody for women fail to be considered.
In calling for reform of the women’s justice system, justice minister Simon Hughes last week backed a programme in Greater Manchester for women offenders convicted of minor offences to receive specialist help for addiction and mental health problems, instead of ending up in custody. Whilst the scheme is a small step in the right direction, urgent reform of the women’s justice system is needed across the UK to effectively address the complex issues faced by women offenders, rather than continuing to trap vulnerable women in a vicious cycle of crime by imprisoning them.
Leila is a bar student and criminal defence paralegal