The Government has this week announced that it will not now go ahead with proposed plans to build five community prisons for women in England and Wales. This has been announced alongside so-called “new investment” into community alternatives for women.
I have mixed feelings about this. The plan for community prisons was innovative and based on recommendations in the Corston report. The plan wasn’t perfect but it would have seen women serving longer sentences placed nearer home, in small units with lots of focus on rehabilitation.
The locations of the first five community prisons were chosen to offer provision in geographical areas which are not well served by the current spread of womens prisons. There are no women’s prison places in Wales at the moment which means that family and friends of Welsh women in prison have to travel to a different country to visit them. Many women describe receiving few visits because they are placed so far away from home. Research shows that connection to the community and responsibility for relationships are key to avoiding reoffending so limiting contact with the home area and networks is problematic on a number of levels. Read any of the research around women in prison and you will encounter heart breaking stories of families torn apart. Their sense of responsibility for family is often cited as a reason that so few women offend in comparison with men. Why destroy the most significant protective factor?
I fear that the statements being made about short sentences are there to distract from the main message which is cancelling what would have been huge investment (£50m) into some of Baroness Corston’s key recommendations (to only imprison women who pose a risk in society and when you do imprison them to do so in small units spread out around the country to allow for closer local ties). Compare this to the promised investment of £5m into community alternatives and you will see where my fear comes from. I agree that women should not be imprisoned for short periods of time, or for non-violent offences, this is central to the Corston recommendations. Baroness Corston said that most of the women in prison were “troubled rather than troublesome” and noted that much of women’s offending is borne out of their own experience of abuse and victimisation.
In the years after the Corston report was published in 2007 significant progress was made by Probation Trusts in alternatives and diversion schemes for women. These included proper funding for women’s centres that the report suggested should be “one stop shops” for women who had committed an offence or were at risk of doing so. Most of these projects were destroyed by the 2014 Probation system reforms called “Transforming Rehabilitation” and the Corston 10 years on report last year raised serious questions about provision of services for women, suggesting that the excellent progress made in the early years had been all but lost in many areas.
What we need is better community provision, delivered in partnership with Women’s services, properly funded Women’s centres and local community services. Probation can work for women but only if properly organised, delivered and funded. The “persuasive evidence” of the efficacy of community alternatives that David Gauke refers to has been around for years, and was heavily relied on in the Corston report. The fact that the report and progress made towards it’s recommendations has been largely ignored in recent years is testament to the approach this government has to truly transforming the concept of rehabilitation in our justice system.
The £5m over two years that is being proposed is simply not enough and not long term enough for real progress to be made in restoring what has been lost. Women’s centres need stable funding to allow them to focus on the real business of supporting women to move away from offending instead of ploughing all their energy into funding bids. The staff working in women’s centres and other specialist providers need stability so that they can develop the skills and experience needed to do such complex and demanding work.
Every time a centre closes or a closure is threatened a layer of staff leave along with their knowledge and great skill, their networks and relationships with the women they support. Every time a Justice Minister announces a change in direction there is a shuffle of staff working with women in statutory agencies. Each time a private Probation provider needs to tighten their belt to squeeze profit from their contract staff resources will be re-directed to fulfill more lucrative parts of the contracts. For women who have often experienced difficulties in relationships the working relationship is even more important than usual, consistency and trust are so vital in getting results.
Professionals working with women in prisons and in the community, either on a statutory or voluntary basis know what really works to stop the cycle of offending for women. We know that intervening early to provide support to those in at risk groups is key but this is expensive and not very quantifiable, it is very difficult to prove that a woman would have offended if not for a particular intervention! We know that once a woman commits an offence the punishment she receives will be felt by her whole family, and if that punishment includes incarceration her children will particularly suffer, will be less likely to succeed and will themselves become more likely to go on to offend in later life. We know that once a woman enters the justice system it takes time and effort to support her to re-build her life and interventions to support her desistance need to be individually tailored and are therefore costly. We know that women make up a tiny minority of the people in our criminal justice system and therefore often get forgotten in the desperate struggle to allocate scant resources to an ever-increasing workload. We know that some women will always be imprisoned and that when this happens they need to be close to home and surrounded by appropriate support and positive working relationships. We know that women serving long sentences would have benefitted greatly by the community prisons that have scrapped, just as much as women currently sentenced to shorter periods in prison would be far better served by properly resourced community alternatives.
The answer to women’s offending is complex and costly. The Government does no favours to anyone by suggesting that £5m is enough to radically change the system and the way it works for women. They do no favours by conflating the problems faced by women sentenced to short periods in prison (who would benefit from community alternatives) with those faced by women serving much longer sentences (who would have benefitted from the community prisons initiative). The answer to womens offending is a real focus on what is likely to work best, not a focus on what is cheapest.
Katie Lomas, National Vice Chair