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Transforming the lives of women in trouble

Jobs, safe housing, childcare support. That’s what women need. Not prison.

Reach Higher, Louise, HMP Bronzefield. Supplied by the Watts Gallery.

Melissa (not her real name) had been arrested about 45 times and had more than 35 convictions, mainly for theft from shops. As a child she had experienced domestic and sexual abuse. As a young woman, her life was chaotic and she was using drugs, developing a crack cocaine-induced psychosis that criminal justice agencies failed to identify.

Over the years she was given sentences from fines to custody, with no-one picking up her mental health needs. Eventually she was referred to Anawim women’s centre in Birmingham to complete a ‘specified activity requirement’ (now called a ‘rehabilitation activity requirement’) as part of a 12 month suspended sentence.

Staff at Anawim listened to Melissa and asked what support she needed. “Everything” was her reply, but mainly she wanted help with substance misuse and housing, and support to enable her to deal with everyday life, including self-esteem and confidence.

Melissa says: “Anawim changed my life – everything they offered I took on and completed, even doing a maths course and counselling. Now I even have my child back.”

Although Melissa’s story is not typical in every respect – very few women are prolific offenders – many aspects of her story are all too familiar. More women go to prison for theft and handling than for any other offence and most women in prison are there for non-violent offences, on short sentences, which have the worst reoffending outcomes.

When women go to prison their children are rarely cared for by their father and their lives are turned upside down with long term consequences for their wellbeing. Mental health problems are much more prevalent among women in prison — they are nearly twice as likely as men to suffer from depression (65 per cent vs 37 per cent), and more likely to associate drug use with their offending (49 per cent vs 29 per cent).

Most starkly, Melissa’s story makes the case for more widespread provision of non-custodial responses to low-level offending such as shop-lifting.

The latest annual report of HM Chief Inspector of Prisons (for 2014-15) reinforces the need for a new approach. It identifies much higher proportions of women than men as having a drug problem (41 per cent vs 28 per cent) or an alcohol problem (30 per cent vs 19 per cent) on arrival into prison. The staggeringly large proportion of the women’s prison population who are on medication (77 per cent) is evidence of the mental and physical health problems that are often an underlying factor in women’s offending.

Women’s services, such as ISIS in Gloucester, WomenCentre in Calderdale, Anawim in Birmingham, have shown themselves more effective than prison in reducing reoffending as well as in enabling vulnerable women whose needs have been long overlooked to lead productive lives. Yet there is patchy provision across the UK of women’s centres and their funding is inadequate and insecure. We need these services more than ever.

Although there has been a decline in women’s prison numbers over the last couple of years, there is a risk they will increase. In England and Wales, anyone serving as little as a couple of days in prison will be subject to twelve months post-custody supervision imposed by the Offender Rehabilitation Act 2014. The Prison Reform Trust is already hearing reports of women being recalled to prison as a result of this.

On the other hand the new duty on the Secretary of State for Justice in section 10 of the same Act to “identify and address the specific needs of women offenders” should deliver better outcomes for women. But we will want to see evidence that adequate women-specific services and interventions are in fact being provided when the dust has settled from the turmoil created by the wholesale reorganisation of the probation service.

There are other encouraging signs of a sea change in policy. Last week the government’s response to the House of Commons Justice Committee report on women offenders was published. In it, the minister Caroline Dinenage MP, Parliamentary Under-secretary of State for Women, Equalities and Family Justice, notes: “For the last two years, the female prison population has been consistently under 4,000 for the first time in a decade. I want to see still fewer women in custody, especially those who are primary carers of young children.”

She has reconvened, and is reinvigorating, the Ministerial Advisory Board on Female Offenders which, while not representing a fully-fledged Women’s Justice Board mechanism that many of us want to see, is a step in the right direction. 

Meanwhile in Scotland, where criminal justice is devolved, the decision to build a new women’s prison has been reversed in favour of small custodial units and community-based provision. The Scottish Justice Secretary, Michael Matheson, has said:

“Scotland has the second highest female prison population in Northern Europe.. this is completely unacceptable and does not fit with my vision of how a modern and progressive society should deal with female offenders.”

We will be working closely with Families Outside in Scotland, a well-respected independent charity that supports prisoners’ families. 

In Northern Ireland a new step-down facility is being provided for women leaving prison and the NI Minister for Justice David Ford MLA understands that “the number of women offenders is comparatively small but the impact is not and it is obvious that within the criminal justice system we cannot simply replicate what we provide for men and hope it will work for women.”

So there is a willingness to adopt a new approach and we will be seizing the opportunity this offers to make the case for more widespread provision of non-custodial responses to low-level offending, such as shop-lifting.

We are starting today by publishing a briefing that highlights both the need and the opportunities to accelerate progress in reforming women’s justice.

This marks the start of a new UK-wide drive to reduce women’s imprisonment, and so reduce the toll it takes on the children affected as well as the women themselves. Supported by the Big Lottery Fund for three years, we plan to build on the findings and recommendations of our Transforming Lives report with the Soroptimists and the Pilgrim Trust.

Working with partner charities, we will drive policy and practice change, identify good alternative approaches across the four nations, and promote effective early intervention and diversion of women into services. This makes sense when you consider that short prison sentences — overwhelmingly what women serve — have the worst reoffending outcomes. Women’s community services show better outcomes, reduce reoffending, and are much less costly in every way than the high level security prisons to which non-violent women are sent. 

Most of the solutions to women’s offending lie outside prison walls. As Melissa says, we should “listen more and don’t judge a book by its covers. Women like me need help and the first step is that someone listens, has empathy and shows some love and kindness. I see only good things in the future for me and my child.”  

I am looking forward to working with the women who know best what they need to stay out of trouble (such as jobs, safe housing, childcare support), as well as with partner charities, local and national governments, and criminal justice agencies across the UK. Reducing women’s imprisonment will help ensure that more women like Melissa get the opportunity to transform their lives. 

 


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