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UK prison reforms failing women


women in prisong, report Campaigners renew calls for community sentences and support for women’s centres.

In 2006, after six women died in the Styal prison in Cheshire, Baroness Jean Corston was commissioned to provide recommendations on ways to keep vulnerable women out of prison.

She made 43 recommendations and called for ‘radical change in the way we treat women throughout the whole of the criminal justice system, [including] not just those who offend but also those at risk of offending.’

She called such change ‘a woman-centred approach’ that necessitated ‘a fundamental re-thinking about the way in which services for vulnerable women are provided and accessed.’

And six years later?

On May 9 this year the government announced justice reforms which the Parliamentary Justice Select Committee called ‘unfortunately symptomatic of an approach within the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) and National Offender Management Service (NOMS) that tends to deal with women offenders as an afterthought.’

An article in the Law Gazette says “six year after the Corston Report, which recommended that only the most serious female offenders be jailed, the [House of Commons justice] committee said that the women’s prison population has not fallen sufficiently quickly and that more than half are serving ineffective short custodial sentences.”

Called Transforming Rehabilitation, the government’s plans have also been criticised for focusing on a payment-by-results privatisation of probation reforms at the expense of funding and of support for a network of women’s centres.

Announcing the new measures in Transforming Rehabilitation in May this year, the Ministry of Justice emphasised the inclusion of ‘extended, targeted rehabilitation’ for every offender leaving prison after sentences of two years or less.

The Ministry also said, following extensive engagement ‘with relevant stakeholders on meeting their [women’s] needs,’ that ‘for the purposes of this piece of work we are focusing on other protected characteristics’.

But in July the chair of the justice committee, Sir Alan Beith MP, introducing a report by the Justice Select Committee, said that “Helping vulnerable women break the cycles that lead to offending or reoffending is about recognising that women face very different hurdles from men in their journey towards a law-abiding life.”

The statistics tell the story.

There are approximately 4,000 women and 80,000 men in prison. Women make up five per cent of the total prison population, and the vast majority of those women (80 per cent) committed a non-violent offence.

Nearly half of female prisoners (48 per cent) surveyed by campaign group Soroptimist UK reported having committed offences to support someone else’s drug use.

More than half of women in prison report having suffered domestic violence, and one in three women in prison has experienced sexual abuse.

More than 80 per cent of women in prison say that they suffer from a long-standing mental illness, compared to 32 per cent of the general female population.

It is estimated that four out of ten women in prison are mothers, and in 2012, it was estimated that more than 17,000 children were separated from their mothers due to her imprisonment.

And the reconviction rate for women serving sentences of less than 12 months is 62 per cent.

All of which point to the fact that prison is ineffective for the majority of women convicted of a crime.

The Justice Select Committee said in its report that ‘Prison is an expensive and ineffective way of dealing with many women offenders who do not pose a significant risk of harm to public safety.

‘We recommend a significant increase in the use of residential alternatives to custody as well as the maintenance of the network of women’s centres, as these are likely to be more effective, and cheaper in the long-run, than short custodial sentences.’

Campaign group Women in Prison responded to the Justice Committee’s report by saying, ‘As recommended by the committee, a radical shift is needed from custodial sentencing to community alternatives that place emphasis on rehabilitation and support women to tackle the root causes of their offending to lead a life away from crime.

‘Therefore, community service programmes at local women’s centres must be made widely available as a sentencing option to courts’.

There are worries among campaigners that continued cuts to government funding, both centrally and locally, will adversely affect availability of women’s centres in general and the volume and quality of their services, particularly as ‘funding on women’s community projects is not protected’.

Baroness Corston’s view on the current reforms is that policy on women’s issues is “in danger of going into reverse” and said that the damage being done to women and their children is “incalculable.”

Justice minister Helen Grant said the government would respond to the report in due course.

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