The government’s new strategy means we have an opportunity to reduce counterproductive short-term prison sentences, which fail to address the core issues and do little to discourage reoffending, argues Bernie Bowen-Thompson
Last month it was announced that the government had scrapped plans for a series of women’s community prisons in England and Wales in favour of a pilot scheme trialling five residential women’s centres.
The Ministry of Justice’s new female offenders strategy focuses on a commitment to divert some of society’s most vulnerable women in the criminal justice system away from custody by “offering provision of tailored support” with recognition for “their unique and complex circumstances”.
Put simply, this strategy finally appears to be putting the needs of the individual first.
At Safer Wales we have spent the last 20 years working with women and girls in, or at risk of entering, the criminal justice system across Wales and England.
We work with both HMP Eastwood Park and HMP Styal on resettling female offenders after they have served custodial sentences and have seen first-hand how damaging prison stays can be.
While women account for just 5 per cent of the 85,000 total prison population in the UK, there are much higher rates of suicide, self-harm and death among them.
In fact, last year there were 2,093 reported incidents of self-harm per 1,000 female prisoners compared to 445 incidents per 1,000 male prisoners.
The charity Inquest’s Dying on the Inside report also revealed that 116 women died following release from prison between 2010/11 and 2016/17.
These figures are alarming, and highlight the lack of appropriate care and concern for some of society’s most vulnerable individuals.
If the primary aim of prison is to discourage reoffending, we know that it does not work.
In fact, given that roughly a quarter of female inmates are first-time offenders, sending a woman to prison actually means they are more likely to commit further crimes in the future.
It’s also clear that little effort is being made to tackle the underlying reason why many women are committing crimes in the first place.
According to the Prison Reform Trust, female prisoners are far more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators, with 46 per cent having suffered domestic violence and 53 per cent having experienced emotional, physical or sexual abuse during childhood.
We recently worked with Anna (name changed) through our Pathfinder service after she was arrested and placed in custody for common assault.
Anna was clearly going through a difficult time and was particularly vulnerable, experiencing mental health problems and alcohol dependency. She had also experienced domestic abuse in the past and lacked any form of support system.
By providing Anna with one-to-one support and help accessing alcohol support, health and housing services, she was able to build her confidence and continue to actively engage with services alone.
She also managed to decrease her alcohol intake and found the courage and confidence to discuss the issues she had been facing with her family for the first time.
“Having someone talk to me and not judge me really helped me move on from a difficult point in my life.
“Services like this need to be more widely available as it really helped me access the support I needed when I needed it most.”
Stories like Anna’s are not rare, and we frequently work with women who have extremely complex needs that would otherwise be ignored by traditional routes in the criminal justice system.
We know that the likelihood of suffering from a mental illness is significantly higher among the female prison population, with 30 per cent having had a psychiatric admission before coming into custody. Shockingly, 46 per cent have previously attempted suicide.
These figures demonstrate just how vulnerable so many of the women entering prisons are.
Our experience, and that of many other agencies like us, has shown that rehabilitating women within their communities is undoubtedly the best approach for reducing reoffending.
We work with South Wales Police to deliver our pathfinder service which helps to address the reasons why women commit crimes and, since 2016, 90 per cent of those we have engaged with did not go on to reoffend within six months. But despite this evidence, we have still seen the use of community sentences halved since 2006.
Women’s routes into criminality are, more often than not, very different from men’s. We also know that short sentences have a disproportionate effect on women.
Despite this, 70 per cent of sentenced women entering prison in the year to December 2016 were serving six months or less.
As women are more likely to be single parents and the prime homemaker, they are at a much greater risk of ending up homeless after prison and losing access to their children. Despite many sentences amounting to a matter of weeks, this is long enough for a woman to lose her home, children and employment.
While it’s highly likely this will have a life-changing impact on the life of the woman, it is also incredibly important to consider the effect this is likely to have on a child, interrupting their day-to-day stability and potentially damaging their future health and wellbeing.
Surely keeping families together wherever possible is the best solution for safeguarding future generations – something our government has pledged a commitment to?
Looking beyond the impact our prison system is having on individual female prisoners, it is vital to recognise that the way our criminal justice system is managed effects everyone.
In 2009/2010 keeping a woman in prison for one-year cost £56,415 while an equivalent community sentence cost just £1,360 – more than 40 times cheaper.
Moreover, If a woman’s children are placed in care the cost of a prison sentence can rocket, from an extra £40,000 to place a child with no specialist needs in care for 14 months to £525,000 over 20 months for placing a child with complex needs in care.
It’s estimated that moving just 1,000 women out of prison and on to a community sentence would save the Ministry of Justice a staggering £12m a year.
In a time of austerity, we need to find solutions that work for the taxpayer as well as those in need of rehabilitation. We believe that community-based solutions are the way forward.
Maria (name changed) was referred to Safer Wales after she was arrested for the first time for stealing from her workplace and, as a consequence, losing her job. This was the first time she had ever been in trouble with the police, and the experience was obviously distressing.
“It was really frightening and claustrophobic. I was thinking about my partner, my family and my kids”.
As a first time offender, we worked with Maria to identify the reason she had committed a crime in the first place. She was given the help and support she needed to overcome her addiction to cocaine and heroin and, despite being addicted for 30 years, Maria was able to overcome her issues and find employment.
“It was such a relief. It’s the best thing that’s happened to me, I’ve learnt a lot and I got lots of support.”
Maria’s story is another example of the hundreds of women we’ve seen make positive changes in their lives when their needs are considered and addressed.
It is clear that we need to see a shift away from traditional custodial sentences and towards community rehabilitation across Wales and the UK. The criminal justice system we are working with right now does not serve the needs of the taxpayer or vulnerable individuals in need of help, and has little regard for the family and community ties that are so important for rehabilitating all prisoners, women in particular.
This new strategy means we have an opportunity to reduce counterproductive short-term prison sentences, which fail to address the core issues and do little to discourage reoffending.
With our devolved government’s commitment to increasing community safety and safeguarding future generations in Wales, it’s vital we take this opportunity to ensure our communities are safer through progressive approaches to criminal justice.
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