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Re-modelling prisons is missing the point


women in prison, reformMost women receive short sentences. Just long enough to blight their lives and those of their children.

Feminism in London 2013 returned to London last week for the first time since 2010 with over 850 women attending.

The conference’s ‘Women Incarcerated’ workshop focussed on the lack of government progress in following the recommendations of the Corston Report.

Jenny Earle, director of the Prison Reform Trust’s Programme to Reduce Women’s Imprisonment spoke at Feminism in London 2013 about how the government is failing women in prison.

As the government announced a plan to close two women’s prisons, Earle made her views clear on how government strategy is currently missing the point.

Only 5 per cent of the entire prison population are women.

This is probably not a figure you are familiar with as it is rarely outlined when statistics of prison incidents are discussed. Such statistics mainly refer to the male population, but this is rarely made clear.

The female population is often forgotten in discussion and, as Earle highlighted, some focus on women in prison is essential “because if we don’t, no one will”.

A report known as The Corston Review was prompted by six suicides at Styal Prison near Manchester; Baroness Jean Corston, Labour Peer, published it in 2007 and it has become a manifesto for change in this area.

Ultimately the report said there was a case for a very different approach when working with women offenders than that taken for men, and especially there was a case for a radical reduction in the imposition of custodial sentences.

Most women receive short sentences. Just long enough to blight their lives and those of their children.

Earle said: “Most women in prison simply shouldn’t be there. Most have been victims of crimes far more serious than the ones they are accused of permitting.

“The courts that send women to prison must frankly be in denial about the impact of imprisoning women on children, even if it is for a short period.

“Often it is unexpected with unplanned arrangements for children…More than 17,000 children a year are impacted by the imprisonment of their mums.”

This workshop highlighted how much of women’s offending is underpinned by abusive relationships, in both childhood and adult lives, and that women will commit crime to support the men in their lives.

Nearly half of women surveyed reported having committed offences to support a partner’s drug use – compared to 22 per cent of men supporting a woman’s.

Drug mules are a classic case of men’s power and exploitation – women find it very hard to make money legally, and very few of the women in prison have educational qualifications and so their employment options are limited.

The Prison Reform Trust (PRT) believes that patriarchal power is a major factor in women’s imprisonment: with women’s continued subordination to men, and men’s use of sexual and physical violence against women contributing as major drivers to the woman’s offending behaviour.

Earle added: “That’s not to deny women’s agency or to suggest that all women are innocent, but we have to understand what gets women into trouble and ask whether prison is a just and proportionate option for the offences they commit.”

The Corston Review recommended alternatives to prison as women are much more of a risk to themselves than to the public, even though they are often kept in ridiculously high security prison environments.

“Definitions of and our responses to mental illness are of course highly gendered, but the fact is women should be getting help needed in the community and not just given tranquilisers which is how mental health is dealt with in and out of prison,” Earle said.

She continued: “There has been no shortage of inquiries, reports and research but there has been a shortage of government commitment to implementing the pretty unanimous recommendation of less use of imprisonment and increased use of dedicated women’s services.

“The Corston Review is considered the blue print calling for a strategic, holistic…women-centred approach with imprisonment reserved for those serious and violent offenders who pose a threat to the public.”

Of those women currently incarcerated in prison, Earle outlined how only approximately 3 per cent are considered to pose a significant risk of harm to the public. In total this amounts to only 130 women.

It is argued that the remaining women should be having access to alternative sentences and community support at a much earlier stage altogether.

The Corston Review recommended a national network of women’s centres to provide women with much-needed support and the necessary practical skills they require to lead or rebuild their lives within a non-judgemental framework.

Last year the Justice Select Committee’s report reviewed the progress of the Corston Report and criticised the government for the ‘lack of progress made, lack of leadership and impetus and allowing the agenda to languish’.

“Prison is expensive and an ineffective way of dealing with women who do not pose a significant risk of harm to public safety,” Earle said.

You would think in this era of austerity, significant cuts would be considerd acceptable by closing women’s prisons and adopting an alternative approach.

Last week the government responded to the report on progress following the Corston Review.

Earle commented on that, saying: “It’s pretty disappointing as they seem to see prison as the solution to women’s offending rather than the problem.”

It has been announced that two women’s prisons – Askham Grange and East Sutton Park – will close. Although this is considered a good thing, both of the proposed closures are small and open prisons. Most women’s prisons are not open and are for much higher risk prisoners.

It has also been announced that women prisoners will serve their sentences closer to home.

This can only be a welcome change, enabling women to have closer and more consistent contact with their families.

Women usually have to serve their sentences further away from home than men because there are fewer women’s prisons in the UK. However, no explanation has been given as to how this new proposal will work.

The government has also announced that it plans to designate all women’s prisons as resettlement prisons but again, no explanation has been offered as to what this means or how the government plans to achieve this.

Earle evidenced a very valid point during her presentation at the Feminism in London 2013 conference: the government’s approach in adopting the Corston Review recommendations has been incredibly slow and far from elaborate. To focus on re-modelling prisons is to really miss the point and is not consistent with the Corston agenda.

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