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Women in prison: let down again


women's deaths in prison, woman-centred services, Corston report, review of progress, Liz Hogarth, probation service, deaths in prisonConditions for women in the hard end of the Criminal Justice System are much worse than ten years ago.

Ten years on from the publication of the influential Corston Report, Baroness Jean Corston’s report on women in the criminal justice system, a review by Liz Hogarth offers an analysis of the role envisaged for woman-centred services in the systems-change proposed by Baroness Corston: the ‘radically different, visibly led, strategic . . . holistic, woman-centred integrated approach’.

Hogarth, who is now retired, was the Ministry of Justice policy lead on women in the criminal justice system from 2002. She worked closely with Baroness Corston during her review and on the implementation of the Corston Report’s recommendations.

As she points out in this review, ‘Trapped in the Justice Loop? Past, present and future of the woman-centred services at the heart of the systems-change called for in the Corston Report’, the Corston Report was the catalyst for a range of government initiatives to make the various parts of the criminal justice system more responsive to the social and emotional needs of criminalised women.

It also mapped out a vision for a holistic network of services aimed at preventing many women being criminalised in the first place.

Hogarth’s review charts the development of woman-centred services and their success in proving their effectiveness: an achievement to be celebrated, given the challenges in a justice environment that often seemed more hostile than enabling and one that saw the loss of some innovative projects.

And it sets out reflections from a policy perspective on what happened more broadly: what went wrong and why and suggests the need for a reality check.

The report also questions the rationale for the current female prisoner population of some 4,000 women and girls. In 2013, the House of Commons Justice Committee stated that only 3.2 per cent of females in prison ‘were assessed as posing “a high or very high risk of harm to other people”.’ Taken as a basis for imprisonment this would equate ‘to around 125 women’ in prison.

For behind the professed cross-party support for the Corston proposals and the somewhat inflated claims in briefings on progress delivered, the reality is one of persisting systems failure not systems change: failure to halt the use of inappropriate short sentences and to avoid the needless loss of life with deaths in custody.

The shocking total of 12 self-inflicted deaths in women’s prisons in 2016 alone is a stark reminder of that failure.

Liz Hogarth argues that change is achievable and that woman-centred projects have a pivotal role in securing that change, and sets out thoughts on how future policy and practice can reclaim and realise the original Corston vision.

Progress on implementing the Corston Report stalled over six years ago.

The singular focus on the Criminal Justice System (CJS), Richard Garside, Director of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, says in the review’s foreword, has helped to mask the reality that what could have worked to halt needless deaths and improve women’s life chances – the ‘prevention’ element of the proposed systems change – has not yet even been fully explored and tried out.

Conditions for women in the hard end of the CJS are much worse than ten years ago: the system both in prison and the community is nearly broken and the solution does not lie in the planned prison reform. Spending £50 million on creating five new ‘community prisons’ that will no doubt be filled with yet more women who should, or do not need to be there is not the answer.

Justice policy remains stubbornly prison-centric despite the fact that most offenders do not go to prison and many women who do certainly do not need to be there in terms of the severity of their offence or risk posed to the public.

The current policy focus on prison and portraying ‘rehabilitation’ as its ‘key purpose’ now risks drawing yet more women into prison: there still appears to be a tendency amongst some members of the judiciary to view prison as a potential place of safety and only where a woman can get the help she needs, despite all the evidence to the contrary.

This review looks at these issues and puts forward 7 recommendations

1 – A shift of focus is needed now away from sentencing and the CJS to ‘whole system’ thinking: the holistic, woman-centred, integrated approach identified in the Corston ‘Blueprint’, along with the delivery structures needed, that will help avoid needless and damaging contact with the CJS.

2 – The Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) should have departmental ownership of the prevention agenda and the lead role, alongside the Department of Health, on the cross-departmental governance group.

3 – Responsibility for expediting the ‘whole system’ approach needed to better support troubled women without criminalising them must be devolved to local communities and robust local governance arrangements put in place.

4 – PCCs should maximise the potential for the police to divert troubled women away from prosecution whenever possible and, in any event, for police to be the only point of contact within the CJS for women with multiple complex needs who commit low-level offences.

5 – The network of woman-centred projects should be rebuilt, expanded and nurtured so that they are embedded in local communities. Their engagement as equal partners, along with others in the women’s sector, in shaping the local strategy for women with multiple, complex needs and in the design, development and delivery of gender-sensitive health and social care provision is essential.

6 – The £50 million earmarked for building five new ‘community prisons’ for women, supplemented if necessary by some of the proceeds from the sale of HMP Holloway, should be re-directed by the Treasury from the Ministry of Justice to the DCLG led cross-departmental governance group for local devolvement to initially resource the work on prevention ahead of more wholesale local ownership of justice issues.

7 – Urgent attention must be given to the need to curtail the inappropriate use of imprisonment for low risk women offenders and to improve the response to the relatively few serious high risk women judged as requiring secure confinement. A rethink on penal policy is required to ensure containment for such women is proportionate, makes best use of new technology and provides an environment that meets their specific needs.

Launching the report, Garside said: “Prisons across England and Wales are in crisis. The probation service is in disarray. Community-based services for women at risk of criminalisation are closing through lack of funding.

“This excellent and timely review by Liz Hogarth explains how we got here. It also offers some important and practical proposals for how we might get out of the mess we currently are in and develop a sustainable model for woman-centred services in the future.”

To read the full review, click here.

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